Did the City Really Steal Christmas?

It all began in the heat of summer — and by asking for permission.

Ankeny, Iowa sounds like a reasonable place. Located in the heart of the Midwest, this little town of of roughly 35,000 is reportedly as American as apple pie. But these days it defends itself from anti-Christmas charges.  

Dave Sanderson, a local resident who for years has decorated his home with Christmas lights, decided he wanted to take it to a new level for Christmas 2006 by adding Christmas music streamed through a low-powered FM transmitter so that he could synchronize his light display to popular Christmas music.  

The Sanderson Family Christmas light display has become a tradition in Ankeny. With more than 40,000 lights in a display that has grown steadily over the years, Sanderson is one of those passionate Christmas light hobbyists who frequent a popular Christmas website dedicated to building more and more spectacular displays in the spirit of the season.

As he has added more elements to the display of his home he has faithfully recorded his methods, upgrades and experiences on his website. Coupled with the technical jargon of switches and transmitters are splashes of past attempts to remain a good neighbor through the dedication of his display to a local hero, signs asking folks to be mindful of neighbor driveways and even reminders of the spiritual message of Christmas.

So when he went to the police department in the summer of 2006 to inquire about increased traffic in the neighborhood that could be the result from expanding his display offering yet again Sanderson was stunned with the cold response he received. The police chief threatened to shut off his display if traffic got out of hand, a responsibility he claimed as stipulated in a local ordinance prohibiting any kind of “nuisance” that would block traffic and access to public sidewalks.

According to a certified letter Sanderson received before his display was even built the City of Ankeny threatened to declare the display a public nuisance if the crowds got too big or the traffic too intense. The City claims they were only being as proactive as Sanderson himself. “He came to us,” the City admitted,”and we told him what the rules have always been. It’s as simple as that.”

What happened next is quite predictable: Sanderson responded to the letter indignantly, which resulted in a half-hearted apology from an assistant City manager who promised to work with Sanderson in keeping the situation under control during the upcoming season. This resulted in a sign saying “local traffic only” being installed nearby. The city claims this was an act of faith on their part and was something they were not obligated to do.

Anticipating the worst, the City of Ankeny prepared to wage battle. Police officers were instructed to keep an eye on the Sanderson display, to document the visiting crowds and to shut off the lights at the first complaint they received.

Sanderson is quick to point out that the police orders were customized to his display specifically, although there are other large Christmas displays in Ankeny which were allowed to continue. The City says the rules are the rules as they see them.

Sure enough, the City claims they received one anonymous complaint about a blocked driveway. That was enough to end Sanderson’s 2006 Christmas display.

Sanderson and the City of Ankeny continue to do battle. Sanderson has followed through on his threats to take his plight to the media through his website and many interviews. As an advertising executive the city claims that Sanderson knows how to gain publicity and that his promotion of the dispute has painted the city in a poor light and shown only one side of the issue.

Trading charges in the media, the City of Ankeny defends itself through claims that they have offered a public space with better access for Sanderson to set up his display, a claim that Sanderson denies. Yet the city is on record in that assertion.  

Is this a case of a homeowner being denied his right to celebrate Christmas as he wants on his own property? Or is it a case of a city being bullied by a local resident unhappy with a standing ordinance?

How far this case goes depends upon the willingness of both parties to communicate and compromise. Score one for Sanderson in proactively seeking to deal with the issue. Score another to the city for outlining in advance what it would do and why.

Clearly, the Sanderson display had been tolerated for some time without incident. In looking forward the city claims Sanderson knew the consequences of expanding his display or else he would not have contacted the city about it in the first place. 

Neighbors are understanding and see both sides of the issue. According to a Des Moines Register story archived on the Sanderson site neighbors confirm that the family has made great efforts to control their display during reasonable hours and to post reminders of maintaining good behavior. But they do point out to the inconveniences of increased traffic and the fact that some people in the large crowds who come just “aren’t nice”.

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