Goldwater Institute Turns Neighborhood Drama Into War on Christmas

UPDATE: Lee Sepanek has added a sign in front of his house blaming the absence of his Christmas lights on the City of Phoenix. The sign includes Mayor Greg Stanton's email address and urges passersby to "contact the City of Phoenix and let Mayor Stanton know that you still believe in Christmas!"

The Goldwater Institute seems to be spinning straw into political gold this holiday season. After news circulated that a beloved Arcadia Christmas house would not be setting up its usual $10,000 display because of neighborhood complaints and city regulations, a battle cry for the War on Christmas was unleashed.

Goldwater and the Rose Law Group are looking to capitalize on the hardship of the Sepanek family, which has set up the light display for the past 30 years, by threatening a law action against Phoenix.

It appeared that the disagreement had already been settled — though too late for this year.  But that's not the end of this Christmas story. 

Some background:

In October, an official from the Phoenix's Neighborhood Services Department informed Lee Sepanek that because of previous traffic complaints, the light display was essentially under probation. If another call came in saying holiday enthusiasts were blocking driveways, then the city would have to shut him down.

This verbal warning left Sepanek disheartened. Another complaint seemed inevitable, so he decided not to set up the usual 250,000 lights that Valley residents have come to know and love.

Julie Watters, the City of Phoenix Communications Director, stressed that anything a staff member told Sepanek during a "good neighbor" meeting was purely a suggestion as the city cannot regulate or prevent homeowners from decorating.

City Manager Ed Zuercher also reminded Sepanek that there is nothing prohibiting him from spreading holiday cheer in an email sent today and obtained by the Phoenix New Times.

Watters said records show that at least six or more neighbors have made more than a dozen complaints since December 2014.

Sepanek told USA Today he was depressed and discouraged. He said he wishes the neighbors would have approached him personally instead of involving the city.

Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio's office also wishes this is how the neighborly dispute was handled.

DiCiccio, who represents District 6 in which Sepanek lives, attempted to mend this broken fence last week.

The councilman wrote on Facebook that he spoke with the director of the city's Neighborhood Services Department and Sepanek, and that they reached an agreement to not shut down the light display.

Sam Stone, DiCiccio's chief of staff, admitted that the city had informally and inappropriately placed strict regulations on Sepanek, like telling him he could not accept donations for hot chocolate and cookies.

Stone noted that city ordinances often are stated in black-and-white and leave little wiggle room for real life.

"If nothing else, the role of our office is to make sure our constituents are being treated fairly," Stone said. "Obviously the city is going to do things that not everyone is going to be happy with but we don't want anyone to be hosed."

In an effort to find compromise, DiCiccio also wrote he would support neighbors who petitioned for "No Parking" signs in the neighborhood.

"These signs would be enforceable and would protect them from the problems they complained about, while protecting Mr. Sepanek's right to celebrate the holidays," DiCiccio wrote.

But Goldwater and Rose Law Group continued to look for a Grinch to pin this lapse of holiday cheer on.

They sent a letter to Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, a Democrat who just happens to be running for Congress,  asking for specific demands from the city allowing Sepanek to continue his holiday tradition.

A press conference has been scheduled for tonight outside of the Sepanek's house to further address the drama.

When asked to elaborate on what the press conference was for and why it was necessary, representatives from both Goldwater and Rose urged Phoenix New Times to come to the press conference where the letter will be provided.

Well, any letter sent to the city is public record so we obtained it through DiCiccio's office instead.

Essentially, Goldwater and Rose are looking to roast the city like chestnuts over an open fire for the misjudgment of the overzealous Neighborhood Services Department, which warned Sepanek that he was in violation of a mobile vending ordinance because he was offering hot chocolate.

The letter to the mayor very coyly points out that Sepanek is simply mixing hot water and powder — hardly a business. The letter argues that "presumably our neighborhood Girl Scouts, Halloween houses, and lemonade stand entrepreneurs would risk prosecution if they do not pay this outrageous licensing fee."

Stone agrees this would be overreaching and an exaggerated interpretation of the ordinance.

"If the result of this lawsuit was making it clear that a 12-year-old girl can have a lemonade stand without paying [the fees] then we would be on board with it," Stone said.

As for this year, it's too late for the Arcadia Christmas house. Sepanek has set up a GoFundMe to help alleviate the costs for next year. So far, the page has raised more than $2,800.

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