A Lynnhurst front yard may be extreme, but if you have a garden figure, sculpture or even lawn chairs in your front yard, you’re violating the city’s zoning code, too
Everyone says that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but few would say the same of the Minneapolis zoning code.
If you ask Mari Newman, she’ll tell you that both beauty and the law are subject to interpretation. And if you look at the city’s zoning codes, you might find that the beauty of the zoning law is that it makes thousands of Minneapolitans, technically, criminals.
Newman’s house at 51st & Penn is a surrealistic Southwest landmark; an object d’ art and d’ scorn. Someone has spray-painted "die bitch" on her garage door and someone else has filed a complaint with the city over the sculptures in her front yard.
City housing and zoning inspectors have been to Newman’s house in recent days to talk to her about the complaint. Minneapolis’s lead zoning inspector, Andy Carlson, said that an order will be issued to Newman within days, telling her to remove the artwork from her front yard.
Said Carlson, "It’s the intensity, it’s the volume of the art objects displayed in the front yard. If we can reduce that down to a reasonable level, we’ll assume success until we receive another complaint."
That intense volume of objects in Newman’s yard includes three brightly painted grocery carts filled with painted cans, hubcaps and air ducts; a metal giraffe; a rainbow of colored metal arbors arcing over her front walk; and a spiky sculpture waving in the wind like thick strands of steel hair.
"The [zoning] code does not define art or make any reference to art whatsoever," Carlson said. "And I believe it probably is art, but the zoning code makes it pretty clear that it really makes no difference."
The art of violation
The city’s zoning code states that a front yard "shall remain open and unobstructed from ground level to the sky, except as otherwise provided."
Carlson said that the code’s exceptions — air-conditioning/heating units, patios, awnings, chimneys, driveways and bay windows — are all-inclusive. In other words, if it isn’t on the list, it’s a violation of the code.
Newman’s decorated grocery carts are code violations. Then again, so is your birdbath. If you have a garden in your front yard with a little figurine in it or a fountain, it’s a code violation. So is that swingset. Same with those lawnchairs. If it’s between the ground and the sky and it’s in your front yard, and it isn’t specifically listed in the code, it’s a violation.
Zoning Inspector Paul Smith said it doesn’t really doesn’t matter if you consider the stuff in your front yard to be art, everyday lawn decorations or just stuff you just haven’t had time to dispose of.
"From a zoning perspective, the question is moot. If you’re talking about the front yard, art is not an allowable obstruction. Whether it’s art or it’s junk, neither is an allowable obstruction," Smith said.
Julia Blount, aide to City Councilmember Barret Lane (13th Ward), said that Lane would need more residents input before deciding whether zoning laws should be rewritten to accommodate front-yard art. "We’ve not been involved in this case," she said. "A question of that nature requires a lot more community discussion and much more consideration of why that law exists."
A quarrelsome history
Newman said she doesn’t care whether inspectors tell her to remove her three grocery carts or not. She’s planning on expanding, not reducing, the number of carts and sculptures.
"I want them to go all the way around the house," she said of her plans for 20 carts filled with symbols of America’s runaway consumerism. "I’m recycling them. I want to have fun with them as an art form."
This isn’t the first time Newman and her home have been the focal points of neighborhood controversy. In the late 1990s, she decorated her home with swastikas and images of the Ku Klux Klan. Complaints were filed and inspectors came and went. Newman eventually voluntarily removed the objects and images that many found offensive rather than artistic.
Today, she says she’ll resurrect those symbols if the city forces her to remove the art from her yard.
"If I have to take down my sculpture garden, it shows that the person who made the complaint may talk like a bleeding-heart liberal and believe in equal rights and that, but this same person doesn’t think I have the right to decorate my front yard. They’re acting like a bigoted Nazi or KKK," she said animatedly as she sat at the Dunn Bros coffeeshop at 50th & Xerxes.
The shop is something of a home away from home for Newman. She doesn’t have a phone, so employees take calls for her. She doesn’t have Internet access, but she can surf on the shop’s computers. She said she’s been rejected by literally thousands of art galleries over the past 35 years, but the coffeeshop has one of her murals on its back patio and has commissioned a second.
Many of the patrons greet her with affection. It’s as if they don’t notice her shock of Einstein-like hair, the gleaming silver globes of metal pierced into her face or her voice boomeranging off of the walls. Or maybe they just don’t care.
Jim Conway sits with his son at a table next to Newman as she gets her coffee cup refilled. He said he’s lived in the area his whole life and that he understands that some people might find Newman intimidating or even frightening as she walks her way around Southwest (the woman the spray paint vandal dubbed "Scary Mary" doesn’t own a car either).
"She wears black most of the time and she’s got all those piercings, and she can’t speak with a soft voice," he said with a smile. "She’s loud without even knowing she’s loud."
At least one neighbor cringes when she looks at Newman’s house.
"I hate it," the neighbor said. "I like Mari, but I hate what’s happening over there. I think she needs to tone it down."
The neighbor asked to have her name withheld because she said she fears retribution from people who feel protective of Newman.
"I do believe she has the right to live wherever she wants, but not to do whatever she wants without regard of her neighbors," the woman said. "You don’t need to go this far to be an artist."
She said that the block of Penn that she and Newman live on is dangerous because so many cars slow down as drivers gawk at the dappled house.
"If this is going to be a tourist spot, fix it up," she said. "[Newman] needs a grant."
Newman said she lives "on disability" and whatever she can get for her paintings.
The neighbor woman said everyone on the block feels the same way about Newman’s house.
"They all hate it, but there’s nothing they can do about it," she said.
Mike Kennedy, an architect who lives across the street from Newman with his family, disagrees. As his kids played in his backyard with their cousins, he said he finds the house an interesting, valid artistic expression, though not as eye-catching as passersby do.
"I’m just so used to it," he said. "I don’t really notice it much any more."
He said he opposes efforts to get Newman to remove her art from her yard.
Where to stick the birdfeeder
Carlson said that Newman would have 20 days to remove her art from her front yard after receiving the city order. If the objects are still there after a follow-up inspection, she’ll be given a second notice of violation and 10 more days to clear out the art. After 10 days, a final inspection will be conducted. If the grocery carts and company haven’t been removed, he said the case will be forwarded to the city attorney for possible prosecution.
"Usually, it’s three strikes and you’re out," he said.
He said if Newman is prosecuted and found guilty of zoning code violations, she’d likely be fined.
"In my experience, people tend to get fines of between $50 and $300. And even that can be waived if they remove the obstructions," he said. "It’s tough. You try to be as practical as possible, but you also have to be mindful of what the code says. It’s striking that balance."
He said that as far as your birdbath, fountain and other assorted front-yard "obstructions" are concerned, you probably needn’t worry about inspectors swooping down on your home.
"Clearly, we have more important things to do with our inspectors’ time than telling people where to put their birdfeeders," he said.
He noted, however, that if someone files a complaint against your birdbath, his department would be obligated to investigate.
"If we do receive a complaint, we have a responsibility to follow up on that complaint."
Newman delights in the idea of neighbors calling in complaints on each other over birdfeeders and lawnchairs and the like.
"There could be a snowball effect," she said with a smile creeping across her face. "I’ll bet you that they’ll have thousands of complaints. Maybe they’ll have to change the law."