For three years now, the property of Frederick "Hank" Robar has intrigued, amused and confused me. What started as a conflict with village officials has "bloomed" into a clever protest at 82-84 Market Street in Potsdam, and for anyone who has seen it, clever may be an understatement.
Now the village is trying to fight back against Robar's corner lot garden, best known for its toilet flowerpots.
The controversy began when Robar requested to rezone a section of land at the corner of Market and Pleasant Streets in Potsdam. In 1994, the village had adopted a plan to categorized Robar's lot and all lots along Market Street as zoned B-2, for low-traffic businesses. When approached by a Dunkin' Doughnuts developer after he purchased the parcel 13 years ago, Robar requested the land be zoned B-1. A B-1 designation allows businesses with more public impact could operate. The application was ultimately denied.
"So they went up the road," says Robar in a quote to North Country Now, referring to Dunkin' Doughnuts' current location at 132 Market Street. "They bought the trailer park, with 20 trailers. We lost 20 families."
Robar incidentally had another offer, and again tried but failed to rezone the land. That was 2005.
So, considering he owned and had to tend to the property anyway, he decided to create a garden, and began to "decorate" the yard.
Robar was busy replacing toilets in his rental properties along Market Street. Recalling a toilet that was outside a resident for 15 years, he decided to put them to use. "I thought I could make a display of flowerpots made of toilets that would look nice."
Along with the garden is a brightly painted garage door flanked with urinals, and a large "Endangered Species" sign accompanying a decorated plastic turtle sandbox, fixed like a scarecrow. Robar also grows ears of corn, which he uses for his own use, in the midst of all the decorations.
But when a group of vandals broke some of the display in 2008, village Code Enforcement Officer John Hill claimed the broken shards constituted a public hazard.
The action reached court in September 2008, but was dismissed when the proper paper work did not reach court. Hill takes full blame fr the mix up.
Robar in response said that the site was no longer dangerous, that he had glued the pieces back together "nicely."
After receiving another ticket for the same charge, Robar has claimed he believes he has been singled out by village officials. "If they do change zoning, it seems it's for certain people, not for everyone."
Hill has stated that the parcel can be developed into a personal dwelling, a small office building, or a personal service establishment, such as a barber shop. But a restaurant with a drive through window does not fit the B-2 designation.
As an individual who has been effected by zoning battles, I find Robar's protest garden to be clever. It's quiet, peaceful, and it is not bothering anybody. Yet the yard is loud in its way to grab the attention of passer byes. And although the point is not obvious, the message to those who know its purpose remains clear.
But in the end, I wondered why Robar decided on the garden. "I'm 69, semi-retired and it gives me something to do."