“I’m not sure how it got twisted around, but this had nothing to do with art.”
By Brandi Makuski
During a marathon session of committee meetings which lasted more than six hours, city leaders on Monday approved an extension for a local resident to correct several violations of the city’s housing code.
But Monday’s discussion did not focus so much on the ordinance violations — which included structural deficiencies, safety issues and peeling paint — and instead became a discussion about art contained within the resident’s yard.
Steph Jones, 38, said the city notified her of several violations at her 908 Second St. property involving “safety and sanitary” issues on May 3. Lack of weather-proofing to her home, a buckling front porch and accumulation of items in her yard were among some of the noted offenses.
Jones claims she felt personally attacked by the violation notice, due in part to her unconventional lifestyle as a working artist and because of the liberal political signs in her front yard.
“[The building inspector] also told me it’s inappropriate to have public art on a private residence; she told me the college had a sculpture yard just up the street, and she said if I asked them, I could do my work there,” Jones said. “She was unaware it was a city-owned sculpture park.”
Jones’ home doubles as the work space, she said, for Second Space Art Place and Studios. She utilizes her front porch and yard as a place to create, and showcase, some of her sculpture art
According to city documents, Jones has until July 1 to bring her property up to code. She addressed the city’s public protection committee to request an extension, and had about 30 supporters with her, many of whom spoke during the meeting.
But according to Michael Ostrowski, Jones had already been granted an extension.
“I have spoken with Ms. Jones, and inspection [department] is fine with the extension,” Ostrowski said. “I have no issue if it’s extended into the fall because it can take time to not only get the financial resources, but to get contractors lined up. I did mention that to her when he met, that we’d have no problem granting the extension for the building-related issues.”
Ostrowski said Jones lives in a B1-Neighborhood Business District and is allowed to have an art studio in her home, but any material used for the business needs to be properly stored and screened from the roadway and neighboring residences.
He added while many of the minor violations on Jones’ property have been addressed, there was still indoor furniture outside of the home, which is violates city ordinance.
“There are dressers on the porch, which under the ordinance would be exposed to the elements in that location, so that would still be in violation of our ordinance as written,” Ostrowski said, adding if the board wanted to include art-related exceptions in city ordinance, his office would draft rewrites.
“Because if we grant [an exception] for one, we should be granting for all,” he added.
Councilwoman Mary McComb said welcomed changes in ordinance language, adding the city needed to account for people who up-cycled and recycled items for outdoor use or decoration in their yards.
“Especially if we consider ourselves a creative community interested in the environment,” McComb said. “Maybe we can craft some local language.”
Along with structural defects and peeling paint, Jones has multiples sculpture pieces throughout her yard utilizing recycled materials, and Ostrowski said there was a “gray area” in the city’s housing ordinances when it came to defining art.
“That’s why there’s an appeals process for it,” Ostrowski said. “Strictly reading the ordinance, this would be in violation. But we had received a complaint on this property, and that’s why we went out there. So what may be art to some is not art to others. We’re not trying to regulate art, just enforce the ordinances.
Many on the committee endorsed adding art-related language to city codes, and some even encouraged Jones to continue.
Alderwoman Cathy Dugan suggested Jones “express” her art even more than she already does.
“It would be helpful to me to see it more as an art installation,” Dugan said. “Anything you can do to make it more available to the public going past…if you could define it more.”
But Dugan also advised Jones she lived on a small lot.
“I appreciate a natural yard, but you have a very small yard with lots and lots of stuff in it. You don’t want to fill it up,” Dugan said. “We do have to regulate indoor furniture [being] outside because we’ve had many, many instances where it wasn’t tended to, upholstered furniture and the like.”
Councilman Garrett Ryan, who oversees the city’s third district, said he’d be in favor of allowing Ostrowski’s department to grant those exceptions on a case-by-case basis, but was against changing the ordinance language. Ryan’s neighborhood is comprised largely of off-campus student rentals, and building inspectors spend “a lot of time” in the area, he said.
“It’s continual, all year round,” said Ryan. “You have new people moving in every single year, so [housing codes] have to be very strict when you deal with [outdoor furniture], because aesthetically, it looks very, very horrible.”
John Gardner, who previously worked as the city’s community development director, warned the committee members of setting a precedent that could hurt future city councils.
“You need to apply the ordinances consistently,” Garden said. “If this were a college house, you’d all be screaming.”
On Tuesday, Mayor Mike Wiza said the ordinance violations had nothing to do with Jones’ art or her artistic lifestyle.
“I’m not sure how it got twisted around, but this had nothing to do with art,” Wiza said. “We all have to play by the same rules, but if the council decides it wants to change language within the existing code, then they can do that.”
The committee voted unanimously to allow the extension for Jones to comply with city codes. The full city council is expected to approve the measure next week.