LA CENTER — As La Center nears ever closer to the same kind of population growth seen in the neighboring communities of Ridgefield and Battle Ground, residents of the tiny town say there is one specific house sending the wrong message to incoming residents and businesses.
“Right now, with the expansion of La Center, we must make a choice about whether or not we will allow the city to be a safe haven for Nazis and Nazi sympathizers,” resident Emily Hancock told the city council during its March 22 meeting.
Hancock said she came to the council meeting representing “a large body of citizens” concerned about an East Dogwood Avenue home with large hand-painted swastikas on the exterior of the house and a World War II Third Reich German flag flying above the home. Property records show the house is owned by longtime La Center resident Donald Soehl.
“The inhabitants of this house are notorious for harassing their neighbors and displaying obscene flags and signs with the intent to intimidate and offend,” Hancock told the council.
Hancock said allowing the graffiti to remain would make existing and potential residents question whether La Center is a welcoming, safe place to live.
“Hate and antisemitism and white supremacy should have no place in La Center,” she said.
Soehl did not return calls for comment.
Hancock said while the right to free speech does include the right to fly swastika flags on private property, she said the swastika graffiti violates the city’s municipal code and should have required a permit because it is visible from the public right of way.
“I sincerely doubt that a permit would have been successfully acquired from the city for this type of signage, meaning that the graffiti is almost certainly violating city code by not having a permit,” Hancock added.
La Center municipal code prohibits graffiti that doesn’t comply with code requirements on the exterior of any building, fence or other structure. It also states that “signs which are public or private nuisances” are prohibited.
But the larger issue, Hancock said, is that the city had previously been made aware of the graffiti but has done nothing to address it.
“Many citizens are under the impression that the city has chosen to do nothing about this because the mayor and city council are in alignment with such anti-semitic values and condone Naziism in La Center,” Hancock said. “We hope that you prove to us that this is not the case.”
Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Cerveny said in an interview Monday they aren’t happy about the display but said there is little the city can legally do about the swastikas on Soehl’s house.
“It wasn’t something we’d like to see in the community, but by the same token, we don’t have any legal authority to tell a homeowner what they can or can’t paint on the side of their house,” Cerveny said.
At the meeting, city attorney E. Bronson Potter told the council that legal precedent, including U.S. Supreme Court rulings, have upheld homeowners’ rights over city restrictions.
“The special protection for doing this on your own residence has to be recognized,” Potter said. “The second thing is why are we doing this, why are we taking this action? It’s clearly content driven. It’s ‘We don’t like the message.’ … You’re just going to be setting yourself up for a civil lawsuit liability.”
Fellow resident McKenzie Link wasn’t satisfied by Potter’s answer.
“How is it still defendable if it’s hate speech? … I just don’t understand when it’s directly trying to hurt people or cause harm, how is that protected (speech)?” Link asked the council.
Cerveny said the city has been working with the homeowner for several years to resolve a dispute related to road work on East Seventh Street.
“He stated he’s doing this because he’s mad at us because we won’t regrade a part of the driveway for him,” Cerveny added. “It just seems to pop up now and again.”
Retired teacher and La Center resident Bill Link said he had heard about the swastikas on Soehl’s house but was still shocked the first time he saw them in person.
Link said when he first saw the “barn-door” sized swastika on the north side of the house, “Your first thought is, ‘Oh, someone did graffiti to this house.’ And then come to find out it was the homeowner that did it.”
He said it wasn’t until the World War II German flag went up that he and others really began to pay attention.
Link said he understands why the city says it can’t legally take action but still finds it discouraging.
“It’s shocking,” he said.
Link said what’s happening in La Center is just a reflection of what’s happening across the country. He just wasn’t expecting to see it here. According to a newly released report from the Anti-Defamation League, reports of antisemitic incidents increased by 35 percent over the prior year.
“There’s so much division now. Even with the signage in people’s yards, it’s either something is red or it’s blue. It’s so sad,” Link said.
The one good thing to come out of all this, Link said, has been seeing young people like Hancock, who is a 2017 La Center graduate, and his daughter Mackenzie speaking up.
“They went to the city council and presented their concerns,” he said, adding that it was “refreshing” to see them get involved.