ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Jesus has risen on a St. Paul man's Mississippi River bluff property. But he might have to come down.
City Hall wants the seven-foot statue of Jesus, which sits atop a 10-foot base, off that cliff. Unless Tuan Pham wins a zoning appeal, the statue that looms over the river valley 10 feet from where the bluff precipitously drops off will have to be moved farther back in his yard. No development is allowed within 40 feet of the bluff, according to city code.
Pham isn't on a property rights crusade. "If we want to have freedom, we have to obey the law, pay the tax of the land and respect the neighbors," he said. But he wants the Jesus statue to stand as a legacy.
"I am a little guy. I want to do something that will stay for 1,000 years," said Pham, 76. His backyard has a sweeping view of the capitol city.
Pham and his wife, Mai Vu, and their 10 children emigrated from Vietnam in 1980. They opened a grocery in St. Paul and lived above it for years in an apartment while renting out three other apartments. In 2006, Pham won a $693,000 verdict from several defendants whom he said falsely called him a Communist on protest signs boycotting his store.
In 2007, Pham bought his bluff home and Lady Liberty was the first statue to go up in his front yard "Freedom Garden." He has added two sets of leaping dolphins, a Virgin Mary, St. Joseph and tropical fish. He flies two U.S. flags on his property.
Now Pham will make his case for a variance for his Jesus statue to the City Council at a public hearing Wednesday. As part of his appeal, he submitted to City Hall 45 signatures from neighbors who support his variance request. He said he knows of no opposition. Pham noted his neighbor's shed is closer to the bluff than his statue.
An anonymous complaint came into the city last November and an inspector told Pham he was out of compliance. The Zoning Board rejected Pham's request for a variance, determining there was no "undue hardship" to support Pham's request and that: "The circumstances were created by the landowner."
The board did say Pham met some of the requirements for the variance, including that it wouldn't impair light or air supply for others. By law, City Council members can't express opinions on such requests before the public hearing.
Pham's Jesus is a treasured replica of the Christ of Vung Tua, a 105-foot monument on Nhu Mount in Vietnam. Pham, a fifth-generation Catholic, said he worked on the early construction of the Vung Tua structure. He imported his marble replica in three pieces and installed him on a reinforced base of concrete and steel.
The Jesus is the jewel of his "Children's Garden" that includes Lady of Fatima and Lady of Lourdes statues, plastic and fabric flowers and concrete ornaments of doe-eyed children playing with bunnies.
But former Minneapolis Deputy City Attorney Mike Norton, now practicing law at Kennedy and Graven law firm, said such requests involve numerous competing interests and are tricky for cities. For one, he said, the council must consider past practice -- whether intrusions have been allowed in the setback and whether Pham could put Jesus elsewhere in his yard.
Also, Jesus may have extra protection from zoning laws. Norton said Pham can argue the statue is a protected First Amendment exercise of his free speech and religion.
In any event, Jesus isn't likely to move out soon.
"This will probably go to federal court," Norton said. "There's always somebody willing to take these things on."
(c) 2011, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
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