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Valentine, a Victim of City Code

By Jennifer Erickson | LB Indy

Layton Jacoby outside his home. Photo: Ted Reckas.

It was no cupid’s bow but an official letter that took aim last week at a lit up heart displayed in an Oro Street yard, figuratively piercing the hearts of the property owners and astonishing neighbors.

Partners Laytham Jacoby and Adrian Vandeudekom have lived on Oro for 14 years. Throughout those years, Jacoby celebrated various special occasions by setting out whimsical, themed displays in the yard – ghouls at Halloween, trees at Christmas, a big shamrock for St. Patty’s Day and a red heart with a white arrow through it for Valentine’s Day.

Until now, no one complained. On the contrary, people often stopped, telling them they enjoyed the playful displays.

In a letter that arrived last week, dated Jan. 31, code enforcement officer Tony Farr informed the property owners their Valentine arrangement is in violation of a municipal code that restricts holiday lights to Nov. 15 through Jan. 15 and ordered the immediate removal of the decoration or risk further action.

An informal poll of neighborhood residents last week revealed a common reaction upon learning of their neighbors’ plight. “What? You’re kidding. Why?”

“We were a bit taken aback by it,” admitted Vandeudekom, expressing his shock and dismay at receiving the letter. “We just think the code is ridiculous and needs to be changed.”

Moreover, the couple are aggravated at the seemingly arbitrary enforcement of the code. If it is taken at face value, any lights and decorations put up outside of the three-month window are technically a violation. This would include all Halloween decorations, for example, and begs the question why decorations are permissible on Oak Street, where nearly every house is festooned.

The code is a “regulation exemption” under the zoning chapter on sign regulation, and states: “Holiday lights and decorations with no commercial message, allowed only between November 15 and January 15 of the following year.” The intent behind this code is unclear, though it dates back at least as far as 1992. City Clerk Martha Anderson could not easily obtain agenda minutes from that period.

Municipal codes in Irvine, Newport Beach, and Santa Monica, for example, lack specific regulations regarding “holiday lights” in residential areas.

Farr explained that the Valentine display was a code violation because it was erected outside the permissible dates, though he conceded such violations are not a top priority and are generally only enforced when there is a complaint. Indeed, a complaint prompted the letter to Vandeudekom, Farr said. The source of the complaint was not identified.

The citation upset neighbor Lyn Steg, who lives across the street from the couple. She collected statements in support of the Valentine display from about 20 other nearby residents and submitted them to City Council members earlier this week, asking for a retraction of the citation. In her letter, Steg suggests the code was probably intended for people who were lax in removing Christmas or Hanukah decorations and that its language is overly broad. What’s more, the code enforcement officer’s discretionary power should not “extend to interpreting any lighted decoration as falling under the quoted code,” said Steg, who incidentally has heart lights strung across her balcony. She has yet to receive a citation for a code violation.

Steg has a point. While the municipal code defines terms used on sign regulation, the term “holiday” is not among them. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “holiday” as a day free from work when custom or law dictates halting general business activity.

Using that definition, Valentine’s Day is not a legal holiday; valentine lights and decorations would therefore not seem a code violation.

City Manager John Pietig confirmed that questions about the code and its interpretation are the purview of the community development department, which is “looking into the concerns raised” in Steg’s letter to see whether the law has been correctly applied and whether any further action is required.

People who complain often do shape code changes, said Laguna Hills lawyer Joe Holmes, co-author of a study on sustainable community development code. So if someone puts a decoration on their property, even if 99 percent of their neighbors love it, the one who doesn’t like it and who complains is the one whose voice is heard and acted upon, he said.

Jacoby found the citation disheartening in a town that supposedly celebrates creativity. Even the city’s sign regulations say part of their “intent and purpose” is to: “Encourage creative, artistic and well-designed signs that contribute to the visual environment of Laguna Beach, express local character and develop a distinctive image;…”

Though he has received only praise and good wishes from neighbors, Jacoby assumes the complaining one must suffer from “a broken heart.”

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