Drive down any residential street in Williamsburg after dark in December and you’re bound to see several houses lit up in green and red and icy blue for Christmas.
If those same holiday lights are still up in the middle of January, the homeowner is not simply procrastinating home maintenance – they’re violating city code.
A Williamsburg ordinance, passed in 1991, prohibits stringing lights to light poles, trees or fences, but seasonal decorations between Thanksgiving and Jan. 6 are exempt from the rule.
Lights left out past Jan. 6 are out of season and out of code, and it’s up to the city’s Planning and Codes Compliance Department to enforce the ordinance, said Heather Markle, deputy zoning administrator.
“The city ordinance is written for a reason, to keep Williamsburg a neat and tidy place,” Markle said.
The department is made aware of infractions by neighbors, who call their office to report a nearby home whose lights are still illuminated well into January. Sometimes reports are made to police, who forward them along to Planning and Codes Compliance, Markle said.
After receiving a report, her department will pay the homeowner a visit to inspect the property and verify that Christmas decorations are still up.
She said her department has had to inform “multiple” homeowners their holiday lights were out of season and needed to come down. She found five letters on file, some to local restaurants, who used lighting out-of-season to illuminate their business.
Like with many other zoning infractions, such as businesses with unpermitted signs, Markle said she begins the process by bringing the violation to the owner’s attention and works with them to fix the problem.
“If I’m stopping by a business that has a sign that’s not permitted, I always like to start a conversation before sending a zoning violation letter,” Markle said. “I take the assumption they probably just weren’t aware, so it’s more of a dialogue than a timeframe.”
On a visit Markle said she will tell the homeowner the decorations need to come down, and gives the homeowner a grace period in which to do so.
It also won’t be her last visit to the property.
“I put them on a rotation where I’m driving by regularly to ensure they have done that,” she added.
If they don’t take down their lights before the grace period is over then Planning and Codes Compliance Department will issue a zoning violation letter. The letter will state the property is out of code and will give the homeowner between five and seven days to rectify the situation.
“They would have a certain amount of time to comply with zoning violation letter before it would end up in court, but that would be a long process for Christmas lights,” Markle said.
Fines for the first offense start at $200, and an additional $500 is tacked on for each day a property is out of compliance. At most, the cost to have Christmas lights up out of season could be as high as $3,000, according to city ordinance.
“Usually people are very happy to comply,” Markle said.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in December, 2018.