Florida City Takes Light Enthusiasts to Court

In the most famous Christmas light fight in America things are about to get really ugly — if they weren’t ugly enough already. The City of Plantation, Florida has imposed every warning, fine and ordinance it can but the Hyatt Extreme Christmas display has not only endured it has grown larger. So the city is going to court to prove its case. According to local media a judge will hold a hearing on the matter June 4th.

Other Christmas light enthusiasts from around the country are watching and starting to sound off. Lon Wilkins, from Henderson, Nevada, operates a popular local display in his own neighborhood. “I was supportive of the Hyatts at first because they seem like nice people just trying to celebrate Christmas,” Wilkins said. “But as we have watched this unfold it is clear they have been more about getting bigger and gaining more attention. They seem to have forgotten that the central message of Christmas is peace. If they cannot make peace with their own neighbors what are they all about anyway? I think it is all very sad.”

The case is important because Christmas lights on a much smaller scale have become an issue in many communities and home owner associations across the country. During 2014 we documented several instances where even simple displays of Christmas were disputed by local ordinance. If the City of Plantation case against Hyatt Extreme Christmas is successful it may fuel further lawsuits against Christmas light lovers.

Plantation Mayor Diane Veltri Bendekovic, who celebrates Christmas, said she is concerned for the neighbors who she said are forced to flee their homes during the holiday season.

“Who is dealing with all the madness again? Us,” said neighbor Dolly Imbert. “We have to go in and out of our houses. Where are my rights? It’s not a normal situation. This is insane. It should not be happening, period.”

The Hyatts were featured in 2013 on “The Great Christmas Light Fight” for their display that features moving characters, a movie screen showing a loop of films, a snow-blowing machine, flashing lights, and an occasional live Santa and “reindeer.” Judges praised the “amusement-park” quality of their presentation, but the Hyatts lost the $50,000 competition to a family from Decatur, Ga.

The city filed a lawsuit in Broward Circuit Court in February 2014 to get the display halted. That case was halted due to an injunction filed by the Hyatts last November. That case gets its day in court now and observers predict the Hyatts are going to lose.

Bendekovic said she wanted the legal action to continue.

“What happens if the settlement falls through?” she said. “We’re here to get the holiday display to [one compatible with] a residential one.”

The Hyatts don’t speak to the media unless it is to promote their display. They continue to make pleas and accusations on their website and Facebook pages. Some speculate that any lawsuit will be challenged in court and that the display will return this Christmas and for seasons to come as the battle takes place in the courts.

Local support for Hyatt Extreme Christmas is difficult to peg. While the display is no doubt wildly popular and draws huge crowds some think most of the monetary and vocal support for the Hyatts come from those who do not live in Plantation and who do not actually have to contend with the issue in their daily lives.

For the Hyatts the argument lies simply with their right to do what they want on their own property — an old argument without much teeth in countless cases with municipalities with zoning laws. The first amendment arguments actually make more sense — or would, if the city were demanding that no display be allowed at all. But that clearly is not the case as Plantation has said all along it just wants a Christmas light display that is on the level with other residences in the area.

Despite the debate the real costs are running up on all sides. Plantation claims it has spent thousands of dollars for police overtime and traffic control while the Hyatts are working under the burden of imposed daily fines of $250 and other fees in excess of $7000. Now attorney fees for both sides are added to the equation.

For the average home Christmas light enthusiast the case is being watched warily.

“We’re concerned about this case,” said Wilkins, who participates actively online with other Christmas light enthusiasts at PlanetChristmas.com, “Neighbor relations are an important part of what we do every year. There are ways to deal with this and some become so big or so popular that they have to get moved for the enjoyment of more people ultimately. Cities and residents can work together. But it appears all or nothing in the case of Plantation and the Hyatt display. It gives all of us a bit of a black eye because it makes all Christmas light enthusiasts look a little nutty and extreme. Most of us are not.”

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