Homeowners Lubek Jastrzebski (left) and Nancy Nemhauser (right) with the son, Chip. Photo courtesy of Pacific Legal Foundation.
UPDATE JULY 18: A final settlement was signed July 18. The homeowners won the right to keep and complete the mural, as well as an apology from the mayor and $15,000 that will be applied toward over 75,000 in legal fees.
It’s perhaps a painful milestone for a city that boasts of its support of the arts. July 26 marks the one year anniversary of Mount Dora city officials waging a fight against local homeowners who sought city permission before commissioning a wall mural of an artist’s interpretation of Starry Night, the iconic van Gogh masterpiece.
A lot has transpired since a lone city official first cited the homeowners for a graffiti violation. A denied appeal, ballooning fines, national Today Show coverage and the involvement of a renowned Constitutional legal foundation were all parts of the on-going saga. Finally, after months of silence during the legal wrangling, the issue of a possible settlement is scheduled to be discussed at a Mount Dora City Council on Tuesday, July 17.
With the final details of a proposed settlement still being hammered out by the attorneys, Mount Dora Buzz was able to glean more details directly from the embattled homeowners, Nancy Nemhauser and Lubek Jastrzebski.
MD Buzz: Are you still in settlement negotiations with the City of Mount Dora today? Nancy: Yes.
MD Buzz: What are the important points already agreed upon in the possible agreement? Nancy: As nothing is signed, nothing has been truly agreed upon. It appears, however, that the city will permit us to retain and complete our artwork and will remove the lien from our property.
But based on our history with the city litigator in this case, we are not sure what will happen. Additionally, there is no actual agreement because the City Council must vote on whether to accept it.
MD Buzz: What are the items that still must be addressed in the settlement? Nancy: Assignability. (In this case, that refers to transferring the ‘grandfathering’ of the mural to future owners of that property if it is ever sold.)
MD Buzz: Are you optimistic a final agreement will be reached in time for the City Council to vote on it at tomorrow's meeting? Nancy: Given our experience with the litigator representing the city, using the term “optimistic” would be a stretch. We are hopeful that, given the unconstitutionality of the city’s sign code, the city will recognize the senselessness of its actions. Hope springs eternal.
The back of the home was painted after the City officials stated the house must match the wall. (Photo by Mount Dora Buzz)
MD Buzz: How has this experience affected your family? Nancy: It has been a nightmare! The city has caused us a great deal of stress, has cost us a great deal of money. We had been charged with “graffiti” initially and were told that the wall had to match the house. Although we had no intention of painting the house at that time, we took on that financial burden in order to try to comply with the city. The city subsequently dropped its graffiti claim.
We had the impression that the city was making up charges as it went along: First it was graffiti, then it was a sign, then it was a safety issue, then it was to preserve the neighborhood. Our experience was that the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing here. It was very disconcerting.
It also adversely affected our family life. Time that we should have spent on family matters were instead spent with attorneys.
In addition, this experience has raised Lubek’s painful memories of life in Communist Poland. He grew up in Poland, behind the Iron Curtain before he immigrated to our country and became a proud citizen of the United States of America—after working here for 10 long years. He said that, in Communist Poland, officials made up rules “on the fly” and constitutional rights were ignored “the same as in Mount Dora.”
MD Buzz: What have you personally learned from this process? Nancy: You can fight City Hall if City Hall is wrong. Indeed, it is incumbent upon citizens to limit an administration’s overreach and selective enforcement. Lubek: “As a Polish American who takes great pride in being a United States citizen, I learned that even in the U.S., you have to fight for your Constitutional rights because people in power do not always respect them. I learned that I am willing to pay $100 per day for my First Amendment rights.” Nancy: “I didn’t learn that! Lubek was, and is, willing to lose the house for his First Amendment rights. I was less than enthusiastic about this possibility! I appreciate electricity and plumbing.”
MD Buzz: What do you hope the City of Mount Dora government learns from this situation? Nancy: We trust that they have realized that they have picked the wrong fight with the wrong people. As Lubek stated, he will fight this “to the bitter end.” And, unfortunately, the publicity brought about by this city, supposedly seen as an “art community,” has been bitter.
We hope that administrators will have learned to exercise financial responsibility to its taxpayers. Further, if they seek to continue with their notoriety as an “art community” they probably should be careful about taking actions to destroy art. We recognize that this artwork may not be everyone’s choice—that is the nature of art. However, what we’ve done is legal. In addition, it has inspired people to learn about van Gogh and, hopefully, art in general. Some students have told us that their teacher has them studying Starry Night and van Gogh in their class.
More than 12,000 people have expressed support for our house and wall. Some have posted that they have come to Mount Dora and spent money at restaurants and shops because they came from other places to see our home. City administrators speak publicly about promoting tourism. In this case, they have done the antithesis of that. And their evolving rationales—grasping at straws—have been bogus and seen by our citizens.
It appears that the city administration had been ill-advised to begin this action. We hope that, next time, they will think before they act—and will act responsibly. It would help if the administrators consider how their taxpayer-funded litigator and magistrate served our community.
We hope that the city will have learned that communication is important. It is noteworthy that the city administration did not speak with us about the painting. They just cited us, then took us to court multiple times and fined us more than $10,000. That ended when, fortunately, Pacific Legal Foundation took our case and filed an action in Federal Court.
Homeowner's sit down with NBC Today Show correspondent, Kerry Sanders. (Photo courtesy of NBC News).
MD Buzz: What has the community's support been like? Nancy: It’s been phenomenal! The community’s support has been extremely helpful and very gratifying. It’s incredible to us that people whom we’ve never met have filed petitions to keep our artwork and more than 12,000 people have signed those petitions.
Many people have left lovely notes of support at our door, some have sent notes through the mail, we’ve received messages from many telling us how much they love the house and wall. Our favorites are messages about kids enjoying it and looking forward to going past the “magic” house. One youngster told her mom that she was certain our house was filled with toys and unicorns. You can’t beat that! One young girl even offered her own money to help with legal fees, but we haven’t accepted a penny from anyone to help fund this lawsuit. Knowing that the house and wall make kids and people happy helped to fortify our resolve to continue in our efforts to keep the mural.
MD Buzz: How has that affected your family? Nancy: It has caused us a great deal of stress and caused and exacerbated medical issues. We are old! It has taken much time from our family activities. Countless hours have been spent on this matter. We sincerely believe the City's resources would have been better spent on our excellent first-responders who work diligently, risking their own lives to save ours.
MD Buzz: Would you do it all over again? Lubek: “Absolutely! The First Amendment is priceless and worth fighting for. I grew up without it and know what that life is like.” Nancy: “If we had Pacific Legal Foundation behind us right from the start, yes! Their attorneys have clearly demonstrated their competence and commitment. And their track record is extraordinary. They have won 10 out of 12 cases in the United States Supreme Court! As a result, we are confident that if we do not come to a final agreement and must go to court instead, we will be represented by the best.”