Protest in porcelain continues in Potsdam zoning dispute
Wednesday, July 21, 2010 - 9:10 am


POTSDAM -- The story so far: a request to rezone a parcel of land, the refusal to do so, the “flowering” of protest on the site, and tickets issued to the artist/landowner over what has been done at the site.

After two applications by landowner and “lawn artist” Frederick “Hank” Robar to get the village to permit a level of commercial development at 82-84 Market St. that current zoning does not allow, and two denials, the issue seems to be closed as far as the village is concerned.

Still in contention is what the village can do about Robar’s visual protest, best known for its toilet flowerpots.

While there’s little prospect that the village will change its mind about turning down his rezoning request, there is also little chance that Robar will end his colorful and spirited protest at Market and Pleasant Streets soon, even in the face of a code violation charge over the site.

“I’m 69, semi-retired, and it gives me something to do, puttering around,” Robar says with an impish smile.

He never had any intention to develop the site himself when he bought it 13 years ago. The site had been empty, except for the garage, since a house there burned several years before. When a Dunkin’ Donuts developer approached him about buying the site for a new shop, he wanted to accommodate them.

But in 1994, the village had adopted a new zoning plan that designated that lot and all the Market Street lots on that side of the street north to Grove Street as zoned B-2, for low-traffic businesses, or residential development. For a Dunkin’ Donuts, there would have to be a change to B-1, under which businesses with more impact could operate.

“The developer asked for the change, and with the traffic it would require, we said we doubted it would happen, and he took that as a ‘no,’” said Ted Prahl, chairman of the Potsdam Village Planning Board, which makes recommendations to the Board of Trustees. “They had every right to press it” if they wanted to, he said.

“So they went up the road,” Robar says, to where the donut shop is now at 132 Market. “They bought the trailer park, with 20 trailers. We lost 20 families.”

Robar says he had another offer, tried again for rezoning, and failed again. That was in 2005.

“I had to mow the whole thing anyway,” Robar said, so he began a garden on the site, and began “decorating” it.

“I saw a toilet outside on Elderkin Street. It had been there maybe 15 years. I was replacing a lot of toilets at the time,” at rental properties he owns on Maple Street, “so I thought I could make a display of flowerpots made of toilets that would look nice.”

For patriotic holidays, he festoons the lot with American flags. Around Easter he had plastic eggs of many colors hanging in the lot. The toilets have plastic flowers sprouting out of them.

The panels of a garage door are painted in several colors, a smiling face is painted on the side of the garage flanked by porcelain urinals.

And a couple of rows of sweet corn are ripening on the lot. Robar says the ears are for his own consumption, and not for sale, lest the village accuse him of farming for profit downtown.

But when the toilets get broken by vandals in 2008, village Code Enforcement Officer John Hill said the sharp edges of the broken shards constituted a public hazard.

Hill says he pursued action against Robar at the site under Chapter 142-11, “Retention of garbage and bulky waste,” Paragraphs A and B of the village code, which state in part, “The discharge or accumulation of garbage, solid waste and toxic waste on any property in the village is violation of the Code of the Village of Potsdam is prohibited and shall be deemed to constitute a threat to public health and safety.” The section goes on to say that the owner has five days “while awaiting removal, provided that all health, fire and other rules, regulations and laws are complied with.”

That action reached court for a hearing, in September 2008, but, Hill says, “it was dismissed when the paperwork didn’t make it to court.” Hill admits it was his mistake.

Robar says they weren’t dangerous anymore after he “glued them back together, cleaned it up, and it looked nice.”

He got another ticket this past February on the same charge. The court date has been pushed back several times, most recently delayed from a July 12 appointment. He has asked for a jury trial.

Robar says he thinks he’s being singled out by village officials for bad treatment, but Prahl says it’s not true.

“They don’t seem to want new business here,” Robar says. “They could have had Wal-Mart. If they do change zoning, it seems it’s for certain people, not for everyone.”

“You can’t just willy-nilly expand commercial zones,” Prahl said. “If he had bought it at B-1 and we decided to go to B-2, he’d have a beef, I believe.” But it had been zoned B-2 years before Robar bought it.

Prahl says they went so far as to suggest to him that he talk to neighboring lot owners to see if they could get together and put it up for sale as a residential or professional office development, which would be okay under the B-2 designation.

Hill says Robar could build a one- or two-family dwelling, business and professional offices, or a personal services establishment such as a barbershop on the site. The B-2 designation allows what is called “light business” or “other uses as determined by the planning board,” Hill said. But he said a restaurant with a drive-through would not be allowed.

The site was zoned as R-2 at the time the house there burned about 30 years ago, Hill said, and was rezoned by local law in 1994 as B-2.

Robar maintains that the village wants to restrict his right to create art at the site. Beauty, and certainly art, are in the eye of the beholder.

If you have beheld the “protest art” at the lot, you might have formed an opinion. But judging by the opinions that have made their way to these pages and our web site over the last few years, there is no agreement. And agreement or not, it has been the topic of much discussion.

Just this past May, someone wrote to North Country This Week that “my 4-year-old asked, ‘why does that house look funny?’ She was referring to the colorful garage and toilets in the yard. I told her, ‘that is what the owner wanted it to look like...that the owner of the house did not get his way and was throwing a tantrum.”

“Who are we to judge what others consider beauty?,” wrote another. But that didn’t curb the comments submitted to the Sound Off and Letters to the Editor columns.

Another wrote to tell of a moment one evening when he saw a young man relieving himself there, and the writer challenged him. “Despite my anger, his pithy reply made me laugh out loud. He said: ‘If he calls those toilets art, then I call this performance art!’”

One person suggested that the thief who stole a mums plant from a daughter-in-law’s grave at St. Mary’s Cemetery “could have taken one off the toilets on Market Street; you would have had a better selection.”

Others have written in urging Robar to “keep up the good work!”

“Juvenile.” “What must strangers driving through our town think of this?” “Grow up, and move on to something more productive.” “I would think I was headed into downtown Hooterville.” “I don’t know how one man can hold the whole town hostage and do as he pleases. It can be very dangerous and can cause an accident as people drive by and look at this Disneyland, right here in our beautiful (??) community.” “The village should sit back, smile and enjoy the handiwork.” “I for one find it amusing.”

“I like Mr. Robar’s toilets, and I look forward to seeing what he will do with his protesting yard each year. Art is subjective; his art has you talking -- and that’s what it’s all about.”

And those are just the comments that were submitted to us and that we could print.

Robar has a suggestion: “If the village wants to buy it, I’d sell it. They could make a park out of it.”

Meanwhile the corn ripens and Robar waits for a new court date on the bulky waste charge.