"Frosty Beats City Hall!"
by Waitsel Smith
Lenoir's battle over a 35' tall Frosty the Snowman has ended in victory for the little guy - his owner, Larry Smith.
That was the headline the News Topic ran on Wednesday morning following the Lenoir City Council meeting the night before, in which the councilmen considered revisions to the laws governing temporary advertising devices, such as the 35-foot-tall Frosty the Snowman, which fraser fir tree grower Larry Smith had erected on his tree lot last Christmas in Lenoir, NC. After over twenty years of selling on that lot - which Mr. Smith and his family owns - and after using various sizes of Frosty to gain the attention of the public, this latest Frosty gained the attention of city officials, resulting in fines totaling $1,400. But rather than bowing to what seemed to be the tyranny of small town government, Larry decided to fight the ordinance, keeping his snowman but paying the daily fine of $50. He believed Frosty's draw was worth it.
In a counter play, the city revoked his license to sell Christmas trees and threatened to change the law to eliminate Frosty entirely. That's what the meeting on Tuesday night was all about. You can read my article on the lead-up to this controversy, as well as my letter to the editor of the News Topic, at Fight Over Frosty.
I was intrigued by this controversy for various reasons. First, enough of our rights are being whittled away by government to let one more abuse go unchallenged. Second, small farmers in America are also being whittled away by government regulations and big agricultural concerns to stand by and let that continue. And third, I had recently experienced my own entanglement with a small town government, which almost killed a real estate deal of mine, simply because of small town cronyism. So, this looked like a David vs Goliath situation to me, regardless of who had the larger inflatable. :)
I had never met Larry Smith prior to the City Council meeting, but when I did, I was immediately impressed. He was self-effacing, down-to-earth and amiable, just as you would expect a mountain farmer to be. He was wearing a pair of overalls, ball cap and a Mountain Top Fraser Fir t-shirt. He said he had been working in his corn all day before coming to the City Council meeting. "I'm just a farmer trying to make a living," was his comment.
I had never been to a city council meeting before. I didn't know what to expect. Would it be wall-to-wall people, protesting the removal of Frosty? Or would no one show up and it be business as usual, as they crushed another small businessman under the tread of Progress? I had my 87-year-old mother with me and, when we arrived 30 minutes early, there were a few councilmen there and one lady, knitting. She reminded me of the women who sat, knitting and watching, as the French aristocracy lost their heads to the guillotine in the French Revolution. Was this a portent? You could see where my mind was.
Eventually the room filled up and the meeting began. It's amazing how, when you actually face your adversaries, they aren't green with horns growing out of the middle of their foreheads. These city councilmen were all nice folks just trying to do their jobs. There didn't seem to be a plot afoot after all. And, reason, not emotion, dominated the meeting.
Only two of us spoke during the open forum: Larry Smith and myself. Larry just wanted some clarification on the new law. The authors of the law had decided to change the restrictions on temporary advertising devices from 32 square feet to 20 feet high - not much of an improvement, but at least a move in the right direction. When I spoke, I reminded the councilmen of the intent of the sign ordinance, which Frosty was not violating. He was only non-compliant in the letter of the law - the 32 square feet, and now the 20-feet-high designation. This seemed like knit-picking to me, considering what a valuable asset Larry Smith's tree business was to the community, and given that signs on an adjoining thoroughfare enjoyed a 50-foot height limit.
Once the open forum had ended, the councilmen debated among themselves, and I was glad to see that it was a reasoned debate in which reasonable concerns were raised. Again, no green monsters with horns entered the room. Once the dust had settled, the councilmen had decided to raise the height limit to 35 feet, and to allow a business to raise such a sign twice a year. I thought this was a tip-of-the-hat to Larry Smith, and a very equitable resolution to the problem.
The News Topic, who had graciously run my editorial that morning - thanks to a good friend's help - covered the story and did an excellent job relaying the details of the meeting. My mom and I walked out with Larry Smith and congratulated him on his win. I think he was somewhat stunned. I think a lot of people were. Most people don't think you can beat City Hall. But Larry Smith did. I was proud of both him and the City of Lenoir. I thought it was a win for both parties.
I don't know how much effect my letter and little speech had - I don't think it matters. I was just glad I was there. It was great to be present when, in my opinion, God hit a home run. I was sorry that more townspeople didn't get to see it. I think they would have been proud of their town and would have been encouraged to see that the little guy can win. Faith is a little thing. It's really more about showing up at the right place at the right time than it is about what is said or done.
Larry Smith got a ton of free advertising out of this episode. Three TV stations - the largest in western NC - covered the story, and they were back at Larry's farm the next day. Moral of the story: if you think you're in the right, stand your ground. Even if you get in trouble initially, in the end, you will be exonerated and you will be in a better place. But you have to be in the right, and you have to trust that God takes care of those in the right.
For my final article on Frosty, go to Frosty Rises!
Waitsel Smith, October 3, 2013
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