An Arcadia resident halts a popular Christmas lights display after complaints. Sean Logan/azcentral.com
For more than 30 years, Lee and Patricia Sepanek have decorated their home in the Arcadia neighborhood of Phoenix with one of the most extravagant holiday light displays in the Valley.
Every October, they begin putting up 250,000 lights in time to flick on for Thanksgiving. They even get a small manlift so they can light up their 100-foot eucalyptus tree.
Lee Sepanek estimates they spend nine to 10 hours a day for three months preparing or fixing the lights, cleaning the neighborhood, or sitting outside greeting and selling hot cocoa and cookies to numerous visitors, some of whom arrive in buses or trolleys.
This year will be different. The Sepaneks haven’t put a single light on their house and don’t plan to.
“That would defeat my whole purpose,” Lee Sepanek said. “This is my protest.”
After receiving multiple complaints about the Sepaneks’ lights display, city of Phoenix staff approached the couple in early October to talk about what they could change this year to avoid more complaints.
Sepanek came away from the meeting so discouraged, he decided to call the whole thing off.
“I’m sad,” he said. “I’m going to be sad when these people show up with their sad faces. They’re going to come around the corner and it’s a black house.”
Neighbors’ complaints spur city action
City spokeswoman Tamera Ingersoll said staff received complaints about the Sepaneks selling food and drinks — which is illegal without a license under city law — and about noise and increased traffic in the neighborhood near Camelback Road and 44th Street.
City staff from the Neighborhood Services and Street Transportation departments met with the Sepaneks in October to have “a pre-emptive meeting to see if we could alleviate some complaints in neighborhood,” Ingersoll said.
Staff suggested the couple have tour buses park in a nearby lot instead of on the street. Sepanek said no tour company has ever asked him if they can visit his home, and he has no say over it.
Sepanek said staff told him that he couldn’t give cocoa and cookies away for free, that he should hire five or six people to direct traffic, and that putting “no parking” signs in front of his neighbors’ driveways would not work.
Ingersoll told The Arizona Republic that city staff did not say any of that.
If they had put up lights this year, Ingersoll said, and spurred more complaints, “He could get a notice of violation that he has (15 to 30) days to fix something, and if he chose not to fix that, he could receive a fine if he went through a court proceeding.”
The city did not issue any notices of violations during the meeting. Still, Sepanek said he found it so frustrating that he gave up.
“I got disheartened. I walked in my house told my wife, ‘We’re not going to light up this year.’ Because I got no encouragement from them this year.”
Sepanek said he knows a handful of neighbors have complained before and “they’re going to complain (again). … They’re going to shut me down, so why would I put in the energy?”
Ingersoll said the city never told the Sepaneks that they couldn’t put up lights, and that the city has no authority to “shut down” light displays.
“The lights were never in question,” Ingersoll said, adding that the only possible notice of violation the city could issue is if Sepanek continued to sell food without a license.
“This was a good-neighbor meeting to try to calm the discord between neighbors, traffic and the amount of calls to police. That’s all this ever was. It was a suggestion conversation,” Ingersoll said.
Phoenix Police Department spokesman Sgt. Vince Lewis said police received a total of two complaints about the Sepanek house in the last five years and there were “no outstanding safety concerns.”
‘This is my hobby. I have nothing else’
As part of his protest, Sepanek said he and his wife are using their lights to decorate seven of his neighbors’ houses.
“Not everybody’s going to know we’re not doing this. I’m still going to get traffic and I feel bad because I know people from Surprise, Tonopah, Prescott that come to see my lights, so I don’t want to disappoint them.”
The Sepaneks still will be outside every night with a clipboard to collect signatures from people who support them.
Sepanek, 66, said he previously thought about scaling back because it is becoming physically difficult, but didn’t think it would end so soon. He said he has been working with Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio to help resolve the issue so he can put up lights next year.
DiCiccio said in a statement to The Republic that he and his office are working to clarify the problems in hopes that the Sepaneks will put up lights again.
Lee said, at least for this year, it’s too late.
A couple years ago, Lee said he realized that between buying decorations, paying for a storage unit all year, and the electricity, the light display costs him $10,000 a year.
Now that he can’t sell cookies and drinks to offset the expense, he started a GoFundMe to help cover costs of possibly doing it next year, which raised more than $1,000 in three days.
“This is my hobby. I have nothing else. I plan all year to do Christmas,” he said. “I don’t even know what I’m going to do with the free time. For 30 years, I’ve not had nothing to do Thanksgiving to New Year’s but Christmas lights and sit outside and talk to people.”
Lee said he has never been approached by concerned neighbors. Instead, neighbors complained to the city, city staff were required to talk with the Sepaneks about the problem, and the confrontation “depressed” Lee.
“If they (neighbors) would have come to me before all this started I would have been glad to discuss it,” Lee said. “I wasn’t given that opportunity.”
Republicans seize political opportunity
The Arizona Republican Party issued a statement Tuesday criticizing Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton and calling him “a grinch.”
“This is bureaucratic, liberal overregulation at its finest,” Arizona Republican Party Chairman Jonathan Lines said in the statement.
“A government and mayor that think they know better are trying to swoop in and control a neighborhood Christmas light display. Don’t be a grinch Mayor Stanton — listen to your constituents and have some holiday spirit!”
The National Republican Congressional Committee also seized the issue as a political tool against Stanton, who launched his congressional campaign in October and will resign within the next seven months.
MORE: What happens when Mayor Greg Stanton resigns?
“I think this is illustrative of government run amok at the city of Phoenix. This is totally out-of-control regulation. It reflects very poorly on his management,” said Jack Pandol, a spokesman for the NRCC, which issued a press release criticizing Stanton.
A mayor’s office spokeswoman said his office had no additional comment about the light display beyond those provided by city staff.
Sepanek said he was unaware of the political blowback.
“I don’t want to get into politics about my Christmas lights, but I guess that’s the age we live in, huh? I guess everything has a political aspect to it anymore,” he said. “That’s not where I’m coming from.”
Why Thanksgiving dinner will be cheaper this year
Too early? KEZ 99.9 has started all-Christmas music
Best family holiday events around the state
10 travel tips make holiday flights a breeze
Holiday lights map submissions open: Add yours
Depending upon who you ask, the holiday season starts as soon as the Christmas tree goes up. But when is the right time to get things lit?
Read or Share this story: http://azc.cc/2AJNYl6