Homeowners Battling Saugatuck Officials Over Yard Signage Seek City Council Seats
The property owners who have completely disregarded the City of Saugatuck’s violation notice over conspicuous display of signs on the front of their home at 790 Lake St. are throwing their hat into the ring for city council seats for the November 4 General Election, they told the newspaper following Monday’s council meeting.
“We are not suing the city, and I am wondering if the city is suing us,” John Porzondek told the council during the public comments section of the agenda.
His life partner James Serman was also at the meeting. Both men have until 4 p.m. Thursday (July 17) to submit their legally required paperwork (they need 20 signatures apiece from registered city voters) to run for the council seats this fall.
As of Wednesday afternoon before press time, four candidates for the four available city council seats had filed their paperwork: incumbents Jane VerPlank, Mark Bekken, Barry Johnson and newcomer Ken Trester who currently serves on the city’s Planning Commission.
Porzondek has previously served on the city council when he was elected during the 2010 midterm elections during which time he publicly chastised his fellow council members over the awning issue, including during public city council sessions. He chose not to run for a second term.
An ongoing issue - both legal and public relations-wise - between the Porzondek and Serman and the City of Saugatuck revolves around an awning/umbrella apparatus the two men sought to have installed and attached to the second level of their Lake Street home.
The couple years ago erected the awning/framework, yet failed to seek approval for it through the Saugatuck Historical District Commission (SHDC), as required by law even though they had sought - and received permission from SHDC - to make other changes to their home.
As a result, the city ordered them to take the awning down which led to a protracted court fight between the two sides.
During that time, Porzondek and Serman also attempted to gain public support in an effort to legally eliminate the downtown historic district, a move that also failed.
The city won every court decision and finally the two men were forced to take the awning and its framework down.
However, the couple then positioned the awning/framework in the front of their home and attached more than a dozen anti-city, anti-historic district signs to it claiming a constitutional free speech right to do so. They say the signs are “artwork” and as such are constitutionally protected.
City officials, however, said they have obtained a legal opinion regarding existing ordinances that gives them the authority to limit the number of signs the two men can post in front of their house.
The matter now seems to be headed once again to court as Porzondek and Serman have failed to heed a written notice from the municipality to remove a majority of the signs.
Saugatuck’s city attorney has already filed notice with the court over the matter and is awaiting a hearing date to be set.
Several neighbors of the men and other city residents have complained to city officials that the signage and awning/framework is making the area look trashy and want it all removed.
If elected to city council, both Porzondek and Serman are expected to use the council seats as a pulpit to fight the removal of their signs and framework.
“The City of Saugatuck has crossed a dangerous line within the art community. It has issued a citation without an explanation of what type of art is allowable for citizens (to express themselves),” said Porzondek, about the framing, decorations and numerous signs at the home.
The life partners are now in the process of gathering signatures for their nomination petitions to run for council at the November 4th election.
As for the signage/awning issue, the city sent the couple a violation notification July 3, informing them the city allows for “opinion signs” on private property, but only to a limited amount (no more than three) and limited size (four square feet), among other stipulations.
The city notice informed them they had until July 8, 2014 to respond to the city’s regulation, but the couple have done nothing about the matter.
The council did not respond to Porzondek’s comments Monday. However, asked what the city’s next step would be, Saugatuck City Manager Kirk Harrier told Observer Newspapers,
“We have to schedule something with the city attorney and with the courts to have this reviewed,” said Harrier.
Harrier further noted, “The ordinance allows for freedom of speech. You can’t ban freedom of speech signs, but you can limit them.”
The city has received a number of complaints about the signs from local residents.
“It’s not the City of Saugatuck versus Mr. Porzondek and his partner, it’s the City of Saugatuck residents; the people that live here are the ones complaining,” added Harrier.
City officials note the couple have exhausted all available appeals and legal means to erect what the city identifies as an “awning” and what the property owners call an “umbrella.” The dispute goes back to 2009 and both parties have expended thousands of dollars in legal wrangling.
The men operate a small bed and breakfast at their home, and they maintain they need the “awning/umbrella” to protect their second floor deck.
Per city ordinance, all exterior modifications in homes within the historic district - as 790 Lake St. is - are subject to the review of the Saugatuck Historic District Commission.
The couple has argued that the Allegan County circuit and district courts’ decisions denying the structure was based on a deliberate alteration of the type of zoning their home is subjected to by Saugatuck City Planning Director Michael Clark.
City officials deny any wrongdoing.
“The ‘structure’ is a legitimate, bona fide and recognized piece of artwork around the world,” Serman told the newspaper, about the framing on the front yard.