by Jon Riches

For over thirty years, Lee and Patricia Sepanek have brought holiday cheer to their Phoenix neighborhood by decorating their home with holiday lights, which has become one of the most impressive and anticipated holiday displays in the Valley. They then open their beautiful display up to friends, neighbors, and visitors throughout the City and State.

Despite the joy this holiday tradition has brought to visitors across the Valley, and despite the tremendous personal expense involved, last year City representatives threatened to shut down the Sepaneks’ display and ordered them to stop offering hot chocolate and other refreshments. The City claimed that the Sepaneks’ display and offering of hot chocolate violated the ordinances, including zoning rules and a “mobile food vending ordinance.”

City bureaucrats then made a series of demands regarding the Sepaneks’ holiday display, including a requirement that Mr. Sepanek hire several private individuals to direct traffic in the neighborhood and that he coordinate with a nearby bank to seek permission to allow tour buses and vehicles—over which Mr. Sepanek has no control—for loading and unloading passengers. City officials also demanded that Mr. Sepanek obtain a special use permit to serve hot chocolate, which, of course, is simply hot water mixed with pre-packaged powder.

By the time the Sepaneks could sort through these various demands and intimidations, it was too late. There was not enough time left for the Sepaneks to decorate their home – a process that takes months. And for the first time in over 30 years, one of the most extraordinary holiday displays in Arizona went dark.

The Goldwater Institute offered representation to Mr. Sepanek to clarify, and if necessary, challenge these City demands. Although this involvement was too late for 2017, Mr. Sepanek did not give up.

In a letter sent to City officials in July 2018, Mr. Sepanek sought clarification from the City regarding what requirements would be placed on his holiday display, so he could comply. In that communication, he asserted that he intended – as he has for the last 30 years – to decorate his home with Christmas lights and serve hot chocolate and other refreshments to visitors. He also informed City officials that he intended to accept donations for the costs associated with the light display and refreshments.

Mr. Sepanek asked whether, as the City has previously asserted, a special use permit or any other permit would be required for these activities.

In September 2018, the City responded, making clear for the first time that Mr. Sepanek is free to decorate his home with holiday lights without complying with various arbitrary requirements. Additionally, despite the breadth of the City’s “mobile food vending ordinance,” the City also provided assurance that Mr. Sepanek could offer hot chocolate and accept donations for his holiday display.

Of course, it should not require a team of lawyers for the City to give assurances to one of its citizens that he can decorate his home for the holidays and offer refreshments to visitors. That’s why the Goldwater Institute authored the Permit Freedom Act, which helps ensure that our freedoms are not treated as privileges that government officials can choose to give or to withhold as they wish. We’re working to ensure that the Act becomes law so that people are no longer subject to arbitrary government permitting processes – and so they don’t need legal representation to defend their fundamental rights in the future.

But for now, it appears that this year and in the years to come, the Sepaneks’ holiday display so many Phoenicians and Arizonans have come to love will return. And this Christmas story will have a happy ending.

Jon Riches is the Director of National Litigation for the Goldwater Institute’s Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation.