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Our Nightmarish Bureaucratic Abuse Is Over

October 17, 2018 - 6:00am
The Mount Dora home of Lubek Jastrzebski and Nancy Nemhauser
The Mount Dora home of Lubek Jastrzebski and Nancy Nemhauser

When my husband, Lubek, moved from communist Poland to America many years ago, he thought he had left behind Kafkaesque tribunals where government officials suppressed speech under vague or non-existent laws. But that was before we had the wall outside our house in Mount Dora painted with a mural in the style of Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.”

From the moment the painting began more than a year ago, city bureaucrats launched a series of power plays to force us to destroy the mural, even though the city has no ordinances that limit how a house may be painted.

The whole idea for the mural came about as we began preparing the house for our son, Chip, and his caregivers. Our son has autism and several medical issues that require full-time care. We plan to move to a condo we own across the street, so our son can live his adult life in the home he knows and loves, and we can literally watch over him at all times.

As we were restoring the house, a local artist reached out to us, and suggested that painting a lovely, artistic mural would greatly improve the cracked and peeling wall surrounding the home.

We fell in love with the idea, and decided on a Mount Dora-themed mural inspired by The Starry Night, one of our son’s favorite paintings. Chip has a tendency to wander from home, and the mural would be a beautiful landmark to help him return home.

I called the city’s planning and building department and asked what permits were required to put a painting on a wall facing a city street. Each person I spoke to told me the same thing: No permit was required and there were “no restrictions.”

After painting had started, I came home to a citation from Mount Dora code enforcement, calling the mural “graffiti” and ordering us to paint it over. We called code enforcement, who told us that the wall needed to match the house. So, we did what any law-abiding citizen would do. We had the artist extend the mural to the entire house, so the wall and house would match. But that wasn’t the response code enforcement was looking for—they wanted the mural gone.

The day of our code enforcement hearing last September, the city suddenly dropped its graffiti claim. Instead, the city called the mural an unpermitted sign. The magistrate ruled that Mount Dora’s code allowed anything that “attracted the attention of the public” to be treated as an unpermitted sign unless it was otherwise explicitly allowed.

We’re not sure what wouldn’t be a sign, if that’s the standard. Holiday decorations, lights, statues, benches, or even a nice car attract attention. But it would be silly to call any of them a sign.

As fines against us grew at $100 per day—to a stunning total of $10,600—we didn’t give up. With the help of Pacific Legal Foundation, which represented us for free, we took the city to federal court because the city’s ordinance is unlawful and unconstitutional.

Our First Amendment rights exist so that government officials can’t pick and choose which speech they will permit and which speech they will censor. And our laws have to be written, and clearly articulated, so that people know what is or is not allowed.

Someone in the city government didn’t like that there were “no restrictions” on how we painted our house, but that’s why there are laws in the first place: so that no one person in power can make arbitrary decisions based on their own personal tastes.

Thankfully, Pacific Legal Foundation’s lawsuit prompted the city to realize this too, and dropped their persecution. The mayor even publicly apologized for putting us through this year-long ordeal. I’m even more encouraged by the City Council’s decision to revise its sign code with help from a new special advisory committee.

For my husband Lubek, this fight against the city was reminiscent of what he calls “the dark times” of communism, where expression was suppressed and bureaucrats ruled by fiat. We now look forward to brighter times ahead, to enjoying the painting that our son loves, and to keeping our liberty intact.

Nancy Nemhauser and her family are residents of Mount Dora.  


The First Amendment guarantees the right to speech. It also guarantees that others cannot be forced to "listen." The artistic expression here does not end at the owners' property lines. There are others who are being forced to view this house by virtue of living nearby or passing through. Focusing only on one's own personal rights and ignoring the rights of others involved is not fair and is certainly not considerate of neighbors. Anyone who cares about their own property has a valid reason to be unhappy about this and frankly insulted. Responsible, effective city codes that deal with this kind of thing do not consider residential zones to be public art galleries where others are forced to view the art. That's not the purpose of residential zoning.

I drive by this house nearly every day, and I love it! It was sadly ironic that a small city known for its art festivals and galleries would crack down on "Starry Night."

If you lived in a subdivision in many areas of Fl, the Homeowners Assoc. Can even control the color of your house, the kind of mailbox and it's color. If you think it is pretty, it is your house. I am glad I do not have to look at it

I think it's ugly, but since there was no law against it, there it is and there it should stay. Glad I'm not a nearby neighbor!

I would not go so far as to say "bureaucratic abuse". I did not read where you met with code enforcement or even the city commission before you painted this "mural" all you did was contact planning and zoning.. I think that both parties in this situation needs to take responsibility for the "Circus" that this created. Both parties could have handled this better. I really don't think it is fair that you are calling it "abuse". I think you did also receive a little monetary apology. You really should not keep putting down the officials at the City of Mount Dora. Maybe you need to seek your responsibility in this whole thing. AND JUST DROP IT!! I happen to really like the mural I'm just really not happy how childish and immaturely this was handled by both parties.

My parents spent the last half of their lives in Mt Dora. It is a sort of "Elizabethan/Antique" city. Yes, you have constitutional Rights to paint your home as you please. Let me say that I do not like your "paint job" as it genuinely does not FIT the area (town) you live in. At best, you have VERY POOR TASTE, but the RIGHT to be offensive.

Disgusting display of grossness! Graffiti. Period.

Unfortunately, local code is typically written vaguely. Not to provide flexibility to the citizen, but to allow flexibility to enforce. Many people won't challenge local government. Great to see PEOPLE are fighting back and winning.

Glad you fought and won!

Our Government is NOT perfect. It's better then most. Sometimes you have to give them a wake-up call. Congratulations on fighting for what was right.

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