An unfortunate — although not entirely surprising — update in a rather unusual code violation case
out of rural Los Angeles County that I first blogged about during the summer of 2011.
Alan Kimble Fahey — hirsute folk hero, visionary artist, and code-defying builder of a labyrinthine, utility pole-centric compound known as Phonehenge West
— has been sentenced to serve 539 days in jail after failing to cough up over $83,000 in fees resulting from the dismantling and demolition
of his own code enforcement official-taunting art. Citing financial hardship, a claim that the judge presiding over the case doubted, Fahey has only repaid the county $1,250 after demolition work on Phonehenge West began in August 2011.
Last month's sentencing — Fahey has also been slapped with a dozen misdemeanor counts of building code violations — marks the end of what the Los Angeles Times
calls a “20-year saga that pitted the retired phone technician against county code enforcement officials and led him in and out of court for the past five years.”
A bit more background
on Phonehenge West itself, a 20,000-square-foot complex that sixty-something Fahey has been constructing in the sleepy Mojave Desert outpost of Acton since 1984.
Essentially a constantly evolving private residence/folk art installation, the sprawling, stilted compound of 13 interconnected (via ramps and bridges) buildings was built largely from "recycled and eco-friendly parts" — like satellite dishes, scrap wood, French doors "donated by Danny Devito," and, of course, 108 unused utility poles — collected over the years by Fahey. Think the Winchester Mystery House
and the Sagrada Família
at Burning Man and you’re somewhat close. Isaiah Zagar's Magic Gardens
in Philadelphia and Sam Rodia's Watts Towers
in Los Angeles also come to mind.
Code enforcement officials obviously failed to see the “art” in Fahey’s quirky labor of love which also included a 70-foot tower with stained glass and a replica of a 16th century Viking dwelling. Instead, they saw a massive fire and safety hazard built in the middle of a rural area at high risk for earthquakes. During the controversial demolition, workers removed 53 telephone poles and 280 tons of debris from the site. The process displaced Fahey, his wife, and their teenage son along with others who were living in structures on the sprawling Antelope Valley property.
According to the L.A. Times, Fahey initially faced six years in jail for not paying up. (In May 2012, he was ordered to serve five months' probation, perform 63 days of community service, and pay $50 a month in restitution for violating building code). However, L.A. County Superior Court Judge Daviann L. Mitchell reduced the sentence to 539 days during December’s ruling. Fahey’s attorney, Jerry E. Lennon, notes that his client should be eligible for early release given the nonviolent nature of his crimes and due to the fact that he has a heart condition. Kidney stones had derailed Fahey from attending previous court proceedings.
The judge's decision has sparked outrage among Fahey supporters, who claimed the structure should have been protected as a unique example of American folk art. But citing administrative law, most pointedly requirements that county residents get prior approval before embarking on massive building projects, code enforcers refused to budge, a jury backed them up, and the judge is set on enforcing the sentence.
Mr. Fahey's lawyer is working to get him released earlier. But the plight of Phonehenge West and its builder has reverberated across the country, not only for the questions it raises about the priorities of the code enforcement system, but also how it highlights the rare breed of building artists who ply their trade across the US
— often, but not always — unmolested.
It's an intriguing issue and I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you think it’s a colossal waste of L.A. County’s time and the taxpayer’s money punishing Fahey for his
atrocious crimes against humanity unique brand of folk art? Or should he have played by the rules just like everyone else from the very beginning?