Clearfield woman says gutted Volkswagen in her tree is art, but police say it’s an ordinance violation

Situation is on hold until city council meets again to discuss whether the code might be amended.<br>

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Janis Zettel with her VW Beetle named "Lucy" sitting in the poplar tree in the front of her Clearfield home, on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018.

A bug hanging out high in a tree is hardly noteworthy. Unless, of course, it’s a Volkswagen Beetle, in which case it will raise eyebrows and apparently result in police involvement.

Janis Zettel, a 64-year-old resident of Clearfield, is at odds with the city after a complaint about what she considers a whimsical art installation — a gutted VW bolted into the branches of a tree in her yard — led to a “nuisance vehicle” ordinance citation and an order to take it down.

Zettel said she was just trying to do something fun in an area where people don’t necessarily have a ton of money to spend beautifying their yards.

“It was just my creative mind. I’ve seen pictures of them hanging from trees like a swing, so I decided to put one up in a tree instead,” Zettel said. “I’m artsy and folksy and hippie — very eclectic.”

Zettel said she and her husband, Roy, stripped the vehicle so that it wouldn’t weigh any more than the treehouse it’d be replacing. After that, they sealed it up so that no one could get into it, painted it like a ladybug, lifted it with the assistance of a neighbor’s forklift, and bolted it into place.

She said all the neighbors who’ve bothered to speak to her about it expressed support and admiration. At least one apparently did not feel the same, though.

Clearfield Assistant Chief of Police Kelly Bennett said that “a civilian-generated complaint” led to an ordinance enforcement investigation.

Zettel said she suspects she knows who complained, and tried to talk to him about it, but didn’t want to publicly identify him because “We’ve been really great friends, we raised our children together, and I don’t want to see anything bad written about him.”

The Beetle went up Dec. 21, and code enforcement officers came out to take a look on Jan. 3, in part to determine if it posed a safety hazard. A city-contracted arborist also inspected the installation. And while Zettel said the arborist told her that all seemed secure, Bennett clarified, “The arborist is there to determine the condition of the tree — they can’t speak to the structural integrity.”

In the end, Bennett said, even though the VW is mostly a shell of a vehicle, the enforcement officers really didn’t have any wiggle room. By the letter of the code, he said, it’s no different than a junker up on blocks in somebody’s yard.

“According to our ordinances of a nuisance vehicle, we believed it fit that definition,” he said. “We are given those ordinances by the city council, and that’s what we have to work with.”

Which is not to say the Beetle is coming down right away. Zettel launched a Care2 petition online asking people to support her effort to keep it, which as of Wednesday afternoon had garnered more than 800 signatures. At a Clearfield City Council meeting Tuesday night, she was able to make an impassioned appeal.

And while that request was initially denied — “They had their mind made up already, said they can’t do it, ‘We’d have to change the code,’” Zettel recounted — a decision was ultimately made to discuss the matter further in a future work session.

So for now, Zettel gets a reprieve.

However, given that she said she won’t be allowed to attend that as-yet-scheduled session and make her case in person, she conceded she’s not terribly hopeful it will yield a different outcome.

“I’m frustrated because we don’t get to personally talk to anyone about this and try to figure it out and work it out,” Zettel said. “… So I assume they’re just going to do it and say ‘nope’ and come tell me. It’s stupid.”

Clearfield City subsequently responded that no such decision would be made without allowing Zettel the ability to provide further input, however.

“The public is invited to any meeting of the City Council with very fewexceptions (purchase of real property or discussion on the competency ofan employee being those). We are planning on discussing the ordinancein question this upcoming Tuesday,” Trevor Cahoon, the city’scommunications coordinator, wrote in an email. “She also has the abilityto speak to any member of the City Council at any time.”