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Federal Action Over Tree Sculpture in Illinois

CHICAGO (CN) - After complimenting a company that carved a sculpture from a dead tree, an Illinois town charged it with seven code violations that called the artwork a sign, an outraged art supporter claims in Federal Court.

Kurtz Investments says the charges stemmed from a tree that died on its property in Hinsdale, Ill., early last year.

The firm in July hired Pennsylvania-based HB Chainsaw Sculptures (HBCS), which "specializes in creating unique, custom works of art from salvaged timber, dead trees, and other natural wood objects," according to the complaint filed Monday.

"Over the course of several days, beginning on or about July 4, 2014, HBCS artist Heath Bender carved a sculpture out of the deceased tree," the complaint continues.

Kurtz says Bender was carving the sculpture when code-enforcement officer Lourdes Backe visited the property.

"Backe told Bender that the artwork was 'very nice,' and that the carving did not appear to violate any zoning ordinances," according to the complaint.

"Backe also told Bender that there was a 12-foot sculpture located in the village that had never been an issue.

"Backe did not issue any warnings or citations to the property when she visited, and she did not tell Bender to stop working on the artwork."

Bender completed the sculpture around July 7, so it is "permanently affixed to the property through the deceased tree's root system," Kurtz says.

Three months later, however, Kurtz allegedly received an Oct. 7 directive from Hinsdale to remove the sculpture under section 9-106(D)(1)(j) of the zoning code, "which prohibits 'identification signs'" in its zoning district.

Kurtz says it appealed a week later, telling the village's manager "that the sculpture was not a sign, much less an identification sign, and was constitutionally protected speech."

The village manager denied the appeal around Nov. 13, however, and issued Kurtz a non-traffic complaint and arrest ticket around Dec. 29, according to the complaint.

Kurtz says the ticket charged it "with seven different ordinance violations, only one of which had been previously alleged in the Oct. 7, 2014 notice of violation."

The six new purported violations include an allegation that the sculpture exceeds the maximum gross surface area of an identification sign and the allowed number of signs in an O-1 district; and that is a ground sign more than four feet high within 10 feet of the front lot line, Kurtz says.

Kurtz says the other charges allege that the sculpture exceeds the 8-foot limit for statuary, and that Kurtz is maintaining a sign without a permit.

In addition to ordering that Kurtz remove the sculpture, the town wants to levy per-day fines of between $75 and $750, the complaint states.

Kurtz seeks damages and a declaration that the ordinances violate the First Amendment and state law because the sculpture is protected expression. It also seeks an injunction against Hinsdale's enforcement of the ordinances generally.

Kurtz is represented by James Vanzant of Kurtz Law Offices.

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