Artistic Expression or Safety Hazard?

news2Faith group leader relocates to Santa Cruz County for artistic freedom, gets art red tagged

Rev. Robert Seals, an artist, musician, and leader of Mother Nature’s Temple—an earth-based faith group that originated in Butte County, but is now headquartered in Soquel—has utilized artistic expression as a means of protest since the Vietnam War era. So, naturally, when he ran into legal problems with a neighbor upon moving onto a 50-acre property just off Old San Jose Road last year, he expressed his frustration by creating a sculpture.

That artistic expression came in the form of a 14-foot tall “Mr. Potato Head,” with a wide, grinning mouth full of sharp fangs and glaring eyes. He crafted the face from the churning tank of a cement mixer, which he purchased for about $600, cutting and welding features, painting it, and setting it vertically. From Seals’ mountain property, the face peered directly at the neighbor’s home.

It all began when the neighbor reported Seals to the county for the modifications he was making on his land. Seals’ potato head sculpture prompted another call by the neighbors to the Santa Cruz County Planning Department, this time reporting their discontent with the giant head peering hungrily at their house.

The Planning Department sent code enforcement officer Jacob Rodriguez to check it out, Seals says.

Rodriguez red tagged the sculpture, citing that its size and shape constituted it a “structure”—the definition of which the Planning Department leaves loose for just such occasions.

Seals conducted his own research and was under the impression that art is not subject to any permitting restrictions while on private property. But, says Chief Building Official for Santa Cruz County Tony Falcone, the county has the power to determine what is or is not a structure on a case-by-case basis.

Their definition for a structure is simply, “that which is constructed,” he says.

“It’s broad, and that’s part of my job—interpreting these kinds of definitions,” Falcone says. “There’s no way to define every possibility. It’s hard to say, ‘Well, art is this, and a structure that requires a permit is that.’ It’s not that black and white.”

In the case of the colorful Potato Head, the county determined the art piece was a structure because of the potential hazard it could create by tumbling down the mountain in the event of an earthquake, destroying everything in its path.

“If it starts representing a potential safety hazard, or any type of impact to people or property, then we look at it as a structure,” Falcone says.

“They got pretty creative,” he says of Seals’ art piece. “I thought it was cool looking. But it was up on end, and up on top of a hill, and even though they’re on a fairly large land parcel, they have surrounding neighbors, and if there was a seismic event and this thing toppled over, it would have so much inertia, it could easily take out some houses below.”

To keep the “art structure,” the red tag stipulated that Seals must apply for a permit and have the foundation engineered, which he says would all cost approximately $6,000. He was given 90 days’ time, which elapsed about a month ago, to comply or take it down.

Just before the 90-days were up, Seals, frustrated, cut the beast into pieces and torched it.

“Part of the reason I put it there was [because] I was venting my anger toward these people, and I did it through art—that’s true,” Seals says. “But it’s still art, and art has its motives. The point is, they found a way to censor art, and I think that’s wrong.”

He says the county has interpreted the law as a means to side with the neighbors.

“I can’t prove that, though,” he goes on. “The county code enforcement has a loophole because it’s their opinion of what’s safe. But it’s on my own land and it’s not a structure. They crossed the line.”

This is not the first time Seals has dealt with heat from neighbors and county officials.

Three years ago, before he moved to Santa Cruz, Seals lived in Chico, where he established a facility for his religious earth group, called the Goddess Temple, on an 80-acre property that he still owns.

Following a large gathering in 2009 on his land, called the Earth Dance Festival, Butte County officials cited Seals for building- and land-use-permit violations, but Seals, with an attorney who specializes in spiritual rights, is working to show that the county violated the Mother Nature’s Temple nonprofit’s rights to religious freedom. That case is ongoing.

In addition to being a Universal Life Church minister, Seals is also the creator of the popular stainless steel water bottle line, Klean Kanteen. He sold the company two years ago and uses the proceeds to fund his nonprofit.

Seals moved to Santa Cruz hoping to reestablish Mother Nature’s Temple here, but is now rethinking the whole thing. He recently put the property off Old San Jose Road up for sale.

“I wanted to move to a place that’s more accepting; more liberal,” Seals says. “They shut down my temple in the woods [in Chico]. And now they’ve shut down my art. I think they’re way out of bounds of their power on this one.”

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