Law Life: 'Tis the season for neighborhood holiday displays

 Cyndi A. Trembley, The Daily Record Newswire

According to a recent consumer survey by the National Retail Federation (www.nrf.com), 48 percent of Americans will decorate for Halloween, spending almost $2 billion in the process. The total expended on Halloween will approach some $7 billion, making Halloween second only to Christmas in consumer spending.

Recent reality shows like HGTV’s “Extreme Christmas: Bigger and Brighter,” “Halloween Tricked Out,” TLC’s “Crazy Christmas Lights” and others showcase the epic proportions holiday displays have become. National Lampoon’s “Christmas Vacation” is a classic example of over the top decorating as Clark Griswold’s determination to light up his house became all-consuming. His efforts to light up the house were thwarted time and again but in the end he prevailed, leading to this exchange: “Aunt Bethany: Is your house on fire, Clark? Clark: No, Aunt Bethany, those are the Christmas lights.”

Not everyone likes a big show. The multitude of lights, additional traffic and noise can turn a Cindy Lou Who into a Grinch in short order. The quest to put on the most elaborate Halloween or Christmas display can sometimes lead to lawsuits and citations from municipal officials. In certain communities concerns over traffic flow in addition to litter and overall public safety have led some municipalities to restrict holiday displays in terms of scope and duration.

The City of Prairie Village outside Kansas City passed a “Public Offenses and Traffic” ordinance last October requiring a special event permit for any “temporary outdoor use of private property” which “is likely to or does in fact generate crowds.” The Kansas City Star on Sept. 19, 2012, reported that police, in response to an annual holiday display, claimed that “[i]n addition to complaints from neighbors about blocked driveways, litter, trespassing and public urination, the street becomes so clogged that, at times, it would be hard for an ambulance or fire truck to get through.”

The Clarion-Ledger, of Jackson, Miss., on Dec. 1, 2011, reported that a resident was asked by Madison City officials to remove the peacocks atop her roof. A city official was quoted as saying “[t]his is not about Christmas or Christmas decorations but the peacocks that neighbors find offensive.” Another example, this one from an article in the Nov. 7, 2007 edition of the Boston Globe reported on one man’s addition of a 10-foot-high, 650-pound, gold-colored crown had drawn the displeasure of neighbors and city officials already worried about “traffic, glare and fears of electrical fire created by the tens of thousands of Christmas lights.”

Halloween displays fare no better, as the following examples illustrate. An Oct. 30, 2010 story from the Arizona Republic reports that in the city of Surprise, one family’s display of “ghouls, goblins and ghosts” drew the ire of neighbors. In addition to complaints about the noise, neighbors reported that the “crowds, spooky noises and industrial-size fog machines” were a problem.

In Sarpy County, Nebraska, the Omaha World-Herald reported on Feb. 25, 2008, that the Scary Acres haunted farm was keeping neighbors awake with its “roaring chainsaws, shrieking teens and booming music.” Although county officials denied the farm’s request to extend its hours, the county commissioner stated that “… it’s great that we have a place to entertain the youth, anything to keep them off the streets … It’s just a seasonal deal. It’s not like it’s every week.”

Sometimes disputes can lead to lawsuits as it did in Rodrigue v. Copeland, 475 So.2d 1071 (1985). The Louisiana Supreme Court enjoined a property owner from erecting a Christmas display with “an extravagant array of lights and lighted figures that had become a serious problem for neighbors who had trouble getting to or from their own properties” as well as damage to their properties. One of the issues considered by the court was whether the defendant’s display had “caused a mere inconvenience or real damage to his neighbors and their right to enjoy their own premises.” The court concluded that the display “has occasioned real damage, not mere inconvenience… finding that “plaintiffs will be irreparably harmed unless injunctive relief is granted.”

In a similar case, the Arkansas Supreme Court found that a property owner had created a nuisance and that “plaintiffs had suffered injury greater than that suffered by the public at large and that the effect of appellants’ massive and commercial size display was such as to constitute a nuisance under the recognized definitions of nuisance in Arkansas.” It was the court’s opinion that the restraints previously imposed were “insufficient to abate the nuisance in order to protect the wellbeing, tranquility and privacy of the home which is certainly of the highest order in a free and civilized society,” (citations omitted) Osborne v. Power 890 S.W.2d 570 (1994.)

The annual trek through neighborhoods to gawk and wonder at the creativity and ingenuity on display isn’t likely to end anytime in the near future. All disputes over holiday displays don’t always end with hard feelings or in a court of law. As reported by the Elmira Star Gazette on Nov. 29, 2011, a man, in response to some neighbors’ complaints, had decided not to erect a display that year.

The man was quoted as saying, “I’m going to respect my neighbors’ wishes and not do it this year. I may do something next year. I may have to tone it down so it’s more in the realm of a normal display.”

Cyndi Trembley has been with the Rochester firm of Harris Beach PLLC since 1997, most recently in the position of manager of Research Services. Prior to Harris Beach, she served as a reference librarian for 18 years at a Syracuse law firm. Her professional activities include service as past president of the Association of Law Libraries of Upstate New York. For more than a decade, she has given presentations on Internet issues and resources for library groups, attorneys and law students

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