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Fight over Santa may end ‘all-year Christmas’

/ Source: NBC News

In room after crowded room, it's Christmas all-year round, with thousands of dazzling lights, ornaments, trees, wreaths and Santas. Holiday music wafts through the store's crowded aisles.

To many, it may seem an unlikely setting for a decade-long code enforcement battle that could now lead to it all closing down on Sunday.

Twelve years ago, Christopher James opened his Christmas-themed floral shop on busy U.S. 1, in North Palm Beach. "You should keep Christmas in your heart all-year long," he said.

Over the years, James developed a loyal customer base, young and old, even hosted choir performances and tree-lighting ceremonies at the store.

Recently, former football great Joe Namath shopped there with his daughter. "We come here every year, and we think this is part of Christmas. This is great," he said.

"People just ooh, and ahh, and spend hours in here. They bring their children," said Molly Swenson, a wedding consultant. "It's been a wonderful thing for the community."

Not so happy with Santa's workshop
Village of North Palm Beach officials, however, see it differently, and have tried to bring Christopher's Creative Design into compliance with local ordinances. They cited and fined James for alleged violations of signs laws and fire codes.

The battle which drew the most attention was an effort by the village to force James to remove two 5-foot-tall Santa Claus figures permanently displayed in the store parking lot.

According to a 1998 code enforcement order, James violated an ordinance, "by erecting plywood flower decorations and Santa Claus figures which meet the definition of a sign."  They would be allowed during the holiday season — not for the rest of the year.

James refused to take them down. "To tell me that Santa is against the law? Tell that to a kid," he replied. "I'm not doing anything wrong."

Village officials also claimed the store endangered the public by violating fire codes, because of too many extension cords, temporary lighting fixtures and obstructed exit signs. 

"Where a business or anybody in the village puts the public at risk we have to have a levy system, a fine system, that encourages compliances," said new village manager Mark Bates.

Outstanding fines
According to the clerk's office, the store has been back in compliance for four years now, but $9,210 in fines still stand. James also owes more than $40,000 in fines for a disputed fence —he claims it's a legal trellis — in the front yard of his home.

James accused enforcement officials of picking on him, arguing that aggressive code inspections at his store and home followed his refusal to remove the Santa figures.

"Why for 12 years did the fire chief himself come in and inspect the store (and another he owned) and I'm fine?," he asked. "They're here to get rid of me. They want me gone, because I speak out."

Turning to the courts for relief, James filed suit against the village, but lost. His attorney, Barry Silver, complained, "If we were talking to reasonable people, this would have been resolved long ago, but we are not."

James refused to pay the fines, claiming he couldn't afford them. He also said there were principles involved.

Mother nature stepped in with final blow
Ironically, it may actually be a weather-related Grinch that ultimately brings the store to a close. Last summer's Hurricane Jeanne severely damaged the Christmas shop, tearing off the roof, and flooding the interior.

Facing expensive repairs, James applied for a government FEMA loan, but said he was turned down, because of liens stemming from the fines on his business and home. 

With that news, James said he was pressured by his family to finally call it quits, and has announced he will close the store the day after Christmas. "I can't afford to have the roof fixed. I don't have the money."

When told of James's decision, Bates, the village manager, said he was unaware of this development. "We certainly don't want to see his business, or any business leave our village."

Bates also questioned why James hadn't recently applied for a reduction of the fines, but added, "I can't tell you that the village would agree to reducing the fine." That decision, he said, would be up to the Code Enforcement Board.

James said after fighting for years, he has little hope for a settlement. His attorney recently delivered a letter to the village, suggesting "in the spirit of the season," that if all fines were dropped, James would "vacate the premises within six months."

"I'm too bright for the community. I have too many lights, and it's just too garish," said James. He says he is deeply saddened by the prospect of losing his business. "I basically broke down many times."

Disappointed customers
Many of his long-time customers are angry and disappointed.

Kathy Lancaster, a country-club social director, said, "You can come to this place, and it totally changes your mood in a matter of a second." She said she hopes James doesn't move, adding, "It would be a real plus for any community that gets him."

Clutching a basket of ornaments as he shopped in the store recently, Namath said, "Wherever he moves, if he has to move, we'll be there."

In recent years, James wrote a Christmas decorating book, recorded a CD, and produced a television show. It was all an attempt, he said, to earn enough money — and attention — to save his store. Still, year-'round Christmas here appears to be shutting down.

James said he is considering buying property and opening a new store in nearby Hobe Sound, Fla.

"If a business wants to leave, we obviously cannot do anything other than wish them good luck," said Bates. "The reality is that is his choice."

"It means nothing to them," said James bitterly, standing amid the bright lights and colorful ornaments, as holiday music filled the air.