In December 2018, the Potsdam Village Board of Trustees passed a junk storage law to address issues of unsightly items left out in public.
“The new local law requires that items that could be categorized as junk cannot be in sight of people traveling the public highways, streets or thoroughfares of the village, according to the law,” according to a story published Dec. 4, 2018, in the Watertown Daily Times. “In a statement on the purpose of the measure, the village Board of Trustees wrote that having visible junk on front lawn ‘is detrimental to the health, safety and general welfare of the community.’ The board also claimed that junk posed ‘an attractive nuisance to children and may imperil their safety’ and that junk depreciates the value of property upon which junk is found as well as neighboring properties.”
Trustees said this law was not an attempt to target parcels of land owned by Frederick J. Robar Sr.; they just believed some folks needed to tidy up around their homes. However, it’s difficult taking this claim seriously.
Since 2004, Mr. Robar has displayed what he calls toilet gardens. It’s no secret that village officials don’t hold their constituent’s artistic sentiments in high esteem, and the junk storage law was the latest mechanism implemented to compel him to clean up his sites.
“Mr. Robar popped onto the village’s radar in 2004 when he asked to get a zone change at his property on 82-84 Market St. so he could sell it to a buyer who would put in a Dunkin’ Donuts. When the village denied his request, he set up what is referred to now as a toilet garden. Since then, he and the village have butted heads twice inconclusively and unsuccessfully in the village court system,” a June 30 article in the Times reported. “In 2008, the village issued Mr. Robar an appearance ticket for a code violation. Mr. Robar argued that the toilet gardens are art and it’s his First Amendment right to have them. The case was dismissed because code enforcement officer John F. Hill failed to bring documents to the court. In 2010 the village tried again, but after the presiding judge resigned amid cocaine-use allegations, the case was dropped and the village decided not to pursue it.”
Representatives of Clarkson University, the St. Lawrence Health System and Temple Beth El spoke out against Mr. Robar’s gardens. There likely aren’t too many people who enjoy viewing rows of toilets on adjacent property.
But Mr. Robar’s attorney, Mark Snider, said the law was created to punish his client after the fact. This would violate his constitutional rights, Mr. Snider said.
The village has so far been unable to force Mr. Robar to dismantle the gardens. This unconventional artist has maintained his landscape scenery through a court of law if not the court of public opinion. Officials are scheduled to discuss the matter Monday.
But for Potsdam to pursue this further may be flushing good tax dollars down the … well, you know. This could end up being an expensive legal battle for the village with nothing in the end being changed.
The junk storage law does not apply to Mr. Robar’s properties. He’s not merely dumping unused bathroom fixtures outside his home because he doesn’t know what else to do with them. He placed the toilets there as a personal expression, an act clearly protected by the First Amendment.
Village officials may not appreciate his artistic objective, but that’s irrelevant. It’s not their job to define what constitutes free speech — the U.S. Constitution already does that.
Potsdam authorities are violating Mr. Robar’s rights by mandating he adhere to their idea of an acceptable visual presentation, and they need to stop their campaign against him.