Owner of Potsdam’s toilet gardens files federal suit against village, requests no less than $7 million

A driveway on a Pine Street property in Potsdam owned by Hank Robar is lined with decorative toilets. (Provided photo — Christopher Lenney, Watertown Daily Times)

POTSDAM — According to a lawsuit filed in federal court Friday, Frederick “Hank” Robar is requesting no less than $7 million in damages from the village as the infamous 15-year dispute over his “toilet gardens” enters its likely most contentious chapter to date.

According to the formal complaint filed in U.S. District Court’s Northern District of New York on Friday, Robar alleges village officials violated three federal statutes in ordering him to remove his toilet planters on several properties: his First Amendment rights to artistic expression and political protest, his 14th Amendment rights to equal protection under the law and rights set forth under the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990.

The suit names the village Board of Trustees, Mayor Ronald J. Tischler, Deputy Mayor Steven Warr, Code Enforcement Officer Lisa Newby and Administrator Gregory L. Thompson as defendants.

As a result of the alleged violations, Robar is requesting no less than $7 million in damages, as well as preliminary and permanent injunctions to prevent the village from removing any fixtures from his properties. The village approved a resolution last month ordering Robar to remove such fixtures, including toilets, urinals and bathtubs, before Sept. 1, at seven of his properties in the village: 10 Pine St., 79 Maple St., 81-83 Maple St., 85 Maple St., 87 Maple St., 82 Maple St., and 84 Maple St. It was determined Robar’s properties were in violation of the “Junk Storage Law.”

In 2010, the village adopted a “Junk Storage Law,” which the complaint alleges was to suppress Robar’s art. The village never proceeded to file the local law with the New York Department of State, the complaint said. On Dec. 3, 2018, the village again adopted another “Junk Storage Law,” which was incorporated as Chapter 125 of the village code. It was filed with the Department of State on Dec. 6, 2018.

The “Junk Storage Law,” according to the complaint, states that “a clean, wholesome and attractive environment is of vital importance to the continued general welfare of (the Village’s) citizens and that the deposit, accumulation or maintenance of junk material, regardless of quantity, is hereby prohibited anywhere within sight of persons lawfully traveling the public highways, streets or thoroughfares of the Village or within sight of neighboring properties.”

Stated in his complaint, Robar alleges the “Junk Storage Law” was adopted by the village in retaliation of his political speech and artistic expression.

Junk is defined in the village code as “(w)orn out or discarded material of little or no value, including, but not limited to, junk appliances, junk furniture, junk mobile home(s), junk motor vehicle(s) and/or garbage and/or rubbish, clutter, litter and debris.”

The suit provides further details of the 15-year dispute between the plaintiff Robar and the defendants, beginning with its impetus, when the village denied a special use permit or zoning variance to Robar allowing the construction of a Dunkin’ Donuts on one of his properties for sale in 2005.

The complaint also now refers to Robar’s toilets as “porcelain planters” and attempts to make the case that similar repurposing is a widespread art form.

“Mr. Robar’s repurposing of toilets into porcelain planters follows a long tradition of decorative repurposing in the North Country. Lawns and porches throughout the North Country — and the Village of Potsdam specifically — are adorned with repurposed milk jugs (transformed into painted planters), repurposed tires (also transformed into planters) repurposed beer kegs, and other repurposed lawn decorations,” the complaint said in part, later referring to his actions as a “porcelain protest.”

The 13-page complaint was filed on behalf of Robar by Jon E. Crain of Whiteman, Osterman and Hanna LLP, an Albany-based law firm. Robar also retains counsel of Mark Snider of Snider and Smith, LLP, based out of Massena.


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