Tens of thousands of lights; inflatable versions of Santa, Hello Kitty and Big Bird; and thousands of visitors driving by to gawk at the spectacle were enough to sap the Christmas spirit out of one Mississippi neighborhood.
After watching his neighbor’s holiday display clog the roads, Eddy Edwards had enough. He suggested the Richardsons, who set up the decorations, move the affair to public property. When that didn’t work, he sued.
“The display brings in over 1,000 cars a night, based on our camera counts, which hampers access to the neighborhood and would prevent rapid response by emergency vehicles not only to our neighborhood, but to a significant part of the city,” Mr. Edwards told The Washington Times.
Robert Tuttle, a law professor at George Washington University, said holiday property disputes are actually fairly common.
“But a lot of them don’t make the papers because they just get resolved by people agreeing to take down some portion of their display, and not to advertise it and for the [home owners association] to post signs that say, ‘No stopping in this area,’ so people can drive by,” Mr. Tuttle said.
When the neighbors can’t come to an agreement, judges are asked to step in and referee.
In Madison, Mississippi, Mr. Edwards said the Richardsons have put up the display for years, but things got worse after they were featured in USA Today’s holiday light competition in 2014.
“The display simply has outgrown what is acceptable in a residential area,” Mr. Edwards said.
Carol Richardson defends her light show, saying the city works to control the flow of traffic and has allowed it to continue over her neighbor’s objection.
“The police department has worked tirelessly to get this under control,” Ms. Richardson told TV station WAPT. “We’re trying to present the message of Jesus’ birth, which is what Christmas is all about.”
While the cases have religious elements, lawyers say they boil down to more mundane property and fair housing issues.
That’s the case in Idaho, where Jeremy Morris is suing the West Hayden Estates Homeowners Association, saying his neighbors have continuously disrupted his Christmas program.
Mr. Morris says the problems began before he even bought the house, when the association learned of his plans for the display, which he uses as a Christmas fundraiser for a children’s cancer charity. The HOA board fired off a letter saying his display wasn’t the sort of thing they were looking for in their neighborhood.
“I am somewhat hesitant in bringing up the fact that some of our residents are non-Christians or of another faith and I don’t even want to think of the problems that could bring up,” the board said in a 2014 letter to Mr. Morris.
The board said his fundraiser, which runs a few nights in December, would violate several HOA rules such as using the dwelling for a purpose other than a single family residence and creating a nuisance due to the lights and traffic the Christmas program creates.
Mr. Morris says it got so bad that the HOA worked to discourage the previous owners from selling him the house, and neighbors have since interfered with the operations of the fundraiser. He said his family has even received death threats over the display, which is at its peak just a few nights a year, with carolers and a live nativity scene.
“What kind of pure evil would motivate people to place plows in front of buses, scream foul language at children and threaten lawsuits over a Christmas program that runs from 6 to 8 p.m. for five nights and helps children suffering from cancer?” Mr. Morris told The Washington Times.
He’s sued, saying the HOA’s antipathy is proof of discrimination against him because of his faith. He also said he had to skip his program this year.
A lawyer representing the West Hayden Estates HOA said it never intentionally discriminated against Mr. Morris, and the board — as well as the neighborhood — consists largely of those who share the same faith as the Morris family and celebrate Christmas.
“The Association maintains that Mr. and Mrs. Morris’ claims have no merit, and that the program is a violation of the pre-existing [covenants, conditions and restrictions] by which the Morrises agreed to abide when they purchased their home,” said Brindee Lee Collins, the association’s lawyer.
Mr. Tuttle said Mr. Morris may have a case, but the end result could be a settlement in the middle in which the display is toned down and the neighbors learn to live with it.
Mr. Tuttle added that he hasn’t seen a case where forcing someone to remove an excessive number of lights would impose a substantial burden on their religion, so that kind of argument would be a hard sell.
In Phoenix, Lee Sepanek says he takes Christmas decorations seriously, having erected a display for three decades. He even has a GoFundMe page where he says he pays $1,500 for the electrical bill and another $6,000 a year just to store the decorations.
“In 30 years never a complaint, then new neighbors several doors away move in last year and complained to the city about the traffic,” he said in his fundraising plea.
He said the city couldn’t do anything about his lights, but they did shut down his hot cocoa sales he started to try to defray his costs. He said he was looking to hire a lawyer to fight the city, but said if he can raise enough money online to cover his costs that would solve the problem.
“They say you cannot fight city hall but we are going to try,” he said.
As of a few days before Christmas he’d raised more than $3,500, out of his goal of $10,000.
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