by Christina Sandefur

Being charitable at Christmas might cost Thomas and Kris Apruzzi tens of thousands of dollars.

For the past 15 years, this New Jersey couple has decorated their home in Old Bridge Township with a dazzling array of holiday lights. Visitors can view the display for free, or they can choose to donate money to charity. The Apruzzis have raised an impressive $20,000 in donations for Home for Our Troops and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. But this year, town officials are treating this generous couple like outlaws.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Old Bridge Township officials threatened the Apruzzis with a $2,000 per day security fee (despite the fact that there haven’t been serious safety issues in previous years) and told them they’d have to pony up for a shuttle service to bus visitors to their home. The family has already spent almost $100,000 on the light display, and, as in previous years, any donations they receive from viewers will go to charity. They simply can’t afford to pay thousands more to the town. And the Apruzzis don’t even know what kind of a bill to expect, because the town council won’t determine whether or how much they’ll charge the family until the holidays are over.

Unfortunately, the Apruzzis’ story is not unique. Just last year, Phoenix city officials threatened to shut down Arizona homeowner Lee Sepanek’s popular holiday light display if he didn’t comply with a host of vague and confusing demands, including coordinating with a nearby bank to allow vehicles to load and unload passengers and obtaining a mobile vendors’ license to serve free hot chocolate (which visitors prepare themselves by mixing water with pre-packaged powder). As with Old Bridge’s surprise fees, Phoenix left Lee scrambling to understand and address the city’s ad hoc demands. Ultimately, he ran out of time, and for the first time in over 30 years, his house was dark last year.

Fortunately, there is a happy ending for “Christmas Lee” and the scores of Arizonans for whom visiting the light display has become a holiday tradition. After the Goldwater Institute got involved, the city of Phoenix backed down from its original demands, and Lee will be able to bring the decorations and the hot chocolate back this year without having to face unclear and arbitrary requirements. Only time will tell how the Apruzzis will fare.

If holiday cheer gets disruptive, cities can mitigate noise and traffic problems by enforcing reasonable nuisance rules that protect quiet, clean, and safe neighborhoods. But imposing excessive, arbitrary, and incomprehensible rules without clear expectations and deadlines diverts limited city resources away from addressing genuine issues and discourages responsible citizens from contributing positively to their communities.

Fortunately, there’s a solution. States that want to protect their citizens from government Grinches can adopt the Permit Freedom Act, which ensures local rules are clear and enforced in a fair and timely manner. As we approach the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers should make a New Year’s resolution to adopt this common-sense reform so that people don’t have to guess whether they’ll be rewarded or punished for their actions—or left completely in the dark.

Christina Sandefur is the Executive Vice President at the Goldwater Institute.