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Decoration Citation

Pushing the boundaries of holiday cheer
Despite harsh winds, families line the sidewalk to view the Santa House yard display at 1655 Red Barn Dr. in North Liberty on Dec. 20. The decorations caused a stir as homeowner Josh Covert received a warning from the city to restrain several lighted arches that crossed over the sidewalk into the right-of-way, or face a heavy fine. As seen here, the arches have since been repositioned in Covert’s yard. He plans to keep the display up through the first week of January. (photo by Cale Stelken)

NL man faced with citation for elaborate decorations

North Liberty Leader
NORTH LIBERTY– There was no shortage of visitors on the evening of Wednesday, Dec. 20, despite 30-degree temperatures and harsh winds. A steady stream of vehicles swooped in with families eager to catch a glimpse of the Christmas spectacle at 1655 Red Barn Dr.
The controversy surrounding the display probably didn’t hurt.
On Monday, Dec. 18, homeowner Josh Covert received an email from the City of North Liberty issuing a fine of $750 plus court costs. This came in response to his light-up arches which stood in the right-of-way space between the street and sidewalk. The city claims to have sent a warning five days earlier, which Covert insists he never received.
“I’ve been told that they mailed the notice and I’ve been told they emailed the notice,” Covert said of the puzzling situation. “So I’m not really sure that they know what they did.”
Upon Covert’s receiving the fine, media outlets quickly took note of the commotion surrounding his festive display.
“It was very surprising. I wasn’t expecting that at all,” he said, reflecting on the dual-interest his decorations have provided.
“I really think there’s two stories there: One is that we’re gonna carry on that tradition that the folks in Coralville weren’t able to do anymore,” he began. “The second story is how, instead of the city supporting it, they wanted to make it difficult to have the display just as it was last year.”
A North Liberty resident since 2008, Covert was given a deadline of Dec. 20 at 9 a.m. to move the arches or pay the fine. He complied the night prior.
According to Covert, 2017 marks the second year he’s displayed the Santa House decorations, including the arches, which he managed to do without consulting officials last year. The arches have become a favorite feature of visitors, who’ve enjoyed taking pictures under them, and in light of the current situation, residents have offered support on the Santa House Facebook page.
“There was no problem last year. And that’s another thing I don’t understand that they can’t provide explanation for, or at least refuse to provide explanation for is, how was it okay last year when it’s not this year?,” he questioned.
The decorations, known as Santa House, may be familiar to long-time residents of the Iowa City area. Covert purchased them from Coralville residents Dave and Roxanne Bahnsen, who displayed them annually for 25 years at 1489 Valley View Dr.
“They did all the decorating that I have in my yard, minus the arches,” he said.
The Santa House display features a staggering collection of blow mold Santas and three wooden houses containing animated characters.
“They actually hand-made all three of those little houses,” Covert said of the Bahnsens. “One of them is set up as Santa’s living room; one of them is the stable for the reindeer; and one of them is set up as Santa’s workshop.”
The arches in question, which loomed over the sidewalk, are programmed to light up in musical rhythm with 101.3 FM. The display runs on a timer 5 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 5 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
“On the weekends, we have been giving out candy canes, hot chocolate and cookies,” Covert added.
“I think the controversy has certainly provided more publicity for it than I ever expected,” he remarked. “I knew going in to it, before we even had problems with the city, that this would create a huge amount of traffic in our neighborhood, and I consulted with my wife and I made the investment.”
Covert has remained cynical of the city’s handling of the situation, claiming he offered to pay for a permit but city officials wouldn’t engage the conversation with him.
“I think the city would like you to think that they equally enforce this rule, and that’s just a false statement,” he assessed. “They make exceptions for other organizations to put things in the right-of-way, and I just would like to be afforded that same opportunity.”
The debate came to a head at the Dec. 21 North Liberty City Council meeting, where Mayor Terry Donahue detailed the importance of access to utilities in the right-of-way and explained, following Covert’s cooperation, the fine will be dismissed and the city will pay the court fees.
“There’s been no deviation of enforcement as far as staff is concerned,” he said, adding that a same-day staff meeting discussed the procedures and concluded they are “being held up in a uniform manner.” The procedures will be reviewed further in the coming months, according to Mayor Donahue.
“It is a matter that regularly comes up. We try to be consistent in the enforcement of that– not perfect, but consistent,” added City Attorney Scott Peterson.
Covert was then invited to address the council, which quickly turned into a heated discussion with Mayor Donahue.
The spirited Covert alleged multiple houses on Fairview Lane have violated the right-of-way with permanent concrete fixtures and landscaping for several years. He also argued the Optimist Club’s flags are placed in right-of-way, to which Mayor Donahue contended they asked for permission to do so.
“I’ve asked Scott (Peterson), pointedly, what I can do to get that permission,” Covert told Mayor Donahue. “I was treated like a second-class citizen, and he would not provide that answer to me.”
“This was never my intent to become the blowout that it’s been,” Covert explained. “But I think that I’m trying to do something that’s nice for the community.”
As the debate carried on, Covert pressed the issue, insisting the only difference this year is City Planner Dean Wheatley now lives in his neighborhood. After repeated interjections by Covert, Mayor Donahue defused the discussion and insisted he ask for permission next year.
Following Covert’s remarks, Councilor Jim Sayre cited his initial encouragement of the right-of-way discussion and assessed its unfortunate direction.
“I think it’s a conversation we should have. If nothing else, it clears the air, so the public knows why we talk about whether or not there’s an exception,” he said.
“But what I don’t appreciate is the approach, and I’ve told Josh that personally. So I think it’d just be over for now, because everyone’s a little bit too emotional about it, and we can revisit it at another time,” Sayre concluded.
The City of North Liberty insists it prefers to seek resolutions rather than impose penalties whenever possible.
“We always want to work with people, and it’s about making sure that the very common rule is followed,” said Communications Director Nick Bergus.
Covert plans to keep the Santa House decorations up through the first week of January but has yet to decide how to display the arches next year.