Christmas display called nuisance
Wesley and Lydia Stelk's 20 years of work on their Christmas display is a wonderment to thousands and a code violation to Oldsmar officials.
By CATHERINE E. SHOICHET
Published November 17, 2004
OLDSMAR - Every day is Christmas at 650 Bay Lake Trail, and city code enforcement officials say that's a problem.
Outside the home of Wesley and Lydia Stelk, the garden is a maze of plastic snowmen and Santas, miniature holiday villages and giant candy canes. On the driveway, wise men in robes mingle with penguins and the occasional igloo.
The display extends into the trees, where strings of colored lights and glittery garlands hang from a framework of 2 by 4's that crisscross through branches.
All of it is part of a festive 50,000-light display that brings 1,500 people a year through the quiet Oldsmar neighborhood near Old Tampa Bay.
To the Stelks, the decorations represent 20 years of labor and a $20,000 investment.
To the city, they're a code violation and a nuisance that must be abated, according to a recent ruling from Oldsmar's Code Enforcement Board.
"We need to get it down to the point where they can control it instead of just leaving it," said board Vice Chairwoman Babe Wright.
In the past, Wright herself was one of many visitors who had marveled at the display.
"We were wondering how people did this and put it all away," she said, "but apparently you don't put it all away, so that's the violation."
Wesley Stelk, 59, said taking down such elaborate decorations would not be feasible. Dismantling all of it could take up to six months, he said.
"It's a community thing. Everybody looks forward to seeing it," he told the board on Nov. 4. "I'd like to think that under the circumstances that maybe you can waive some of the rules and some of the requirements."
But the Code Enforcement Board said Christmas decorations cannot stay up for more than 30 days, and temporary or decorative outdoor lighting cannot remain installed for more than 90 days. The board gave the Stelks until Jan. 30 to remove all of their holiday trappings.
Lydia Stelk, 61, said November is normally a time to add finishing touches to the display. But this month, she and her husband have started to tear decorations down.
Gone is the whimsical re-creation of a winter wonderland, crafted with bean-bag stuffing that looks like snow. What remains are heaps of holiday rubble and disordered rows of toy soldiers.
"It's all torn up. It's a disaster in there now," said Wesley Stelk, who is retired from the Air Force. "There will be no Christmas this year."
The Stelks began putting up Christmas decorations when they moved to Oldsmar 20 years ago. It started with a few lights on the roof and just kept growing.
Christmas became a year-round passion and a full-time job for Lydia Stelk. She has spent up to 14 hours a day working on her displays.
"It's not planned. It just pops out of my head," she said. "It's not ordinary decoration. I have to climb the trees and put up the lights."
For 12 years, they have opened up their display to the public on December evenings, playing Christmas Carols, providing hot chocolate and a fire in the driveway for roasting s'mores. It's a service to the community, where neighborhood kids give garden tours and visitors donate around $800 per year to charity, they say.
The Stelks say that they must devote so much time to removing decorations that they probably won't be able to do anything for Christmas this year.
No one has ever complained about the display or their year-round storage of Christmas decorations, they said.
"These people are looking at it like it's a bunch of trash, but that's not the case," Wesley Stelk said.
City Code Enforcement Officer Robert Rehmer told the board that he first noticed holiday decorations and outdoor furniture items outside the house shortly after he began working in Oldsmar in April.
In June, he sent them a notice of violation.
"I did have a formal complaint (made) anonymously by telephone from someone in the neighborhood about the property and the condition it was in," Rehmer told the board. When the Times tried to contact Rehmer, his supervisor said the city attorney would have to answer any questions about the case.
Brandi Nickchen, 43, who lives down the street said Rehmer and the board were "killing Christmas" for the neighborhood.
"It's not an eyesore. Nobody in the neighborhood cares," she said this week. "It's really something that we all get together as a neighborhood and enjoy. I don't want to see it go away."
City Attorney Tom Trask said the Stelks can appeal the decision by going to court. The code enforcement board cannot alter laws or allow exceptions, he said.
"Their only obligation is to review the code, hear testimony and determine whether or not there is a violation of the code," he said.
The Stelks say they hope to rebuild their display next year in compliance with Oldsmar's rules.
In the meantime, they hope to find a positive side to the situation. The task of tearing down the decorations is too large for two people, Wesley Stelk said, so on Dec. 4 they will host a party for neighbors who want to help out. The decorations will go into storage until the Stelks can come up with a solution.
"This just hit us broadside," he said. "All of a sudden, everything is upside down."
- Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at email@example.com or 727 771-4303.
[Last modified November 17, 2004, 00:02:23]
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