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THE CURIOUS CASE OF BILL ANSELL

I’m not from around here.

I did, however, spend most of my childhood Thanksgivings on Woodland Road in Ross Township. For the better part of two decades, no holiday visit to my grandparents house was complete without a drive down the hill for a few loops around the circle at Fairley Road. There, glowing in the center of a suburban cul de sac, we’d join other bundled up carloads of families marveling at the biggest private Christmas lights display we’d ever seen. It was Clark Griswold’s house on anabolic steroids; but being the late 1980s, no one seemed to mind. We’d take a few laps around the property admiring the glimmering spectacle of it all, toss a couple bucks in the donation box, and then head home for leftovers. The whole family loved it, and even later, as a disagreeable nineties teenager, I still got a kick out of it.

IMG_1167Part of growing up is finding out who actually eats the milk and cookies on Christmas Eve. Finding Santa leaning back for maximum trajectory as he defiantly urinates from his front porch would be jarring for any well-adjusted guy relocating to Pittsburgh as an adult. At the least, it called for a major reevaluation of what constitutes a place on the Naughty List.

Plastic choir children that adorned the lawn are now dismantled, their heads on posts. It looked like Colonel Kurtz had colonized the North Pole, and the situation had begun to deteriorate. A manifesto’s worth of profane signs are nailed to the house, insulting the local police as “ISIS Pig Warriors” and calling one neighbor uglier than “a bag of puppy assholes.” More than five upside-down plastic swimming pools circle the lawn, totaled kiddie cars sit junked, and old tarps and weather-stained children’s toys lie mangled between playhouses. Gazing out over his round, rosy cheeks, a nearly life-size light-up plastic Santa is equipped with a yellow stream of lights to urinate towards his neighbor’s house. The property is owned by Robert Ansell, but his brother, Bill Ansell, lives in the house and was responsible for both versions of the display (exclusive photos are available on SteelThisMag.com).

IMG_1166I have an uncle who’d returned to the area and was living in our ancestral home when I moved here. A self-described “heathen” with a sincere love for holiday extravagance, the Fairley cul de sac’s cheer-from-the-comfort-of-your-vehicle was a highlight of his winter. There was celebration, bright lights, charitable contributions, and all within reach of a front seat ashtray. When I asked about the change in motif at the bottom of the hill, he explained that, much to his own surprise, not all the neighbors were big fans of the former Christmas display. He remembered a woman knocking on the door about ten years ago, she seemed to be running for a local office — or so he recalled — and she wanted my uncle and grandmother to sign a petition to end Ansell’s display. “I told her, ‘I like the display,’ and I kept calling her The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, and then she left,” he told me, much to his own amusement.

Thinking about it, the line wasn’t usually short as we idled up and down the small hill with dozens of other cars, mesmerized by the festive lights. For someone living a few numbers closer to Bill Ansell’s snow globe come to life, I could suddenly see the traffic of hundreds of extra families passing your house as being a little stressful. Then, thinking about years of backing out of a driveway into a procession of turned-around-and-yelling dads in minivans, the nightmarish theme took on a whole new significance.

20160109-BZV_1683As I sifted through a decade of news coverage, most of it shock value wintertime filler, I could see why most of the nearby residents didn’t want to go on record or discuss the dispute at all. “He’ll [Ansell] sue you for anything,” neighbor Vince Grubb told me. He went on to warn me that I may be in danger of a lawsuit. “Even for parking your car there, you should probably move that,” Grubb said. Ross Township Solicitor Bonnie Brimmeier had previously announced officials aimed to get a resolution by spring 2015. Ross Township Police told me they weren’t speaking on the issue anymore, though at the time the township was in the process of getting a court order from Allegheny County to cite Ansell for vulgar signs and litter, according to a report on Triblive.com. For now, ringing in a second decade of the neighborhood feud, the lawn display and signs remain.

Though the petition circulated in 2005 to pressure authorities to stop Ansell’s Christmas display garnered few signatures, it will be far from the first time Ansell has squared off in court over his lawn and the surrounding street. In fact, with widely varying accounts of arguments over leaf blowing, parking spots, and mailbox placement, it’s difficult to discern a single culprit or antagonist. However, decades of a lack of usable roadway space, possible encroachment of right-of-way of the cul de sac, and perceived favoritism of the local authorities are all beginning to culminate in an upcoming definitive decision on whether or not Ansell will be able to continue to maintain the current appearance of his home.

With no moral to the story or warm and fuzzy Christmas movie ending in sight, I ignored the “trespassers will be shot in the head” sign and knocked on Bill Ansell’s door. It’s not like Santa is really peeing from the front porch, I told myself. I couldn’t find any interviews with Ansell since 2013, but with most of his horror show lawn still intact, it was my only chance to gain some insight into why he so staunchly believed in keeping the property like this. If things really went south, I might be able to play it off like I was lost and looking for my grandmother’s house.

20160109-BZV_1723To my surprise, Bill Ansell politely opened the door. He greeted me and spoke openly, he even went through a book of pictures of the house, the way it used to look. Ansell was exceedingly proud of his home’s former aesthetic. “It’s my life’s work,” he said. As he talked about its absence, Ansell didn’t act like the renegade nutcase waging war with his neighbors that I’d expected. Instead, he looked like a man who had been robbed of something profoundly important to him. “That was my dream and they destroyed it. You can only imagine how that feels. I’m pissed off,” he told me. He looked depressed while he described dismantling some of his decorations after spending “more than $200,000” in court fees.

After hearing Bill Ansell almost echo the complaints and claims of the few neighbors who have chosen to speak to the media, people claiming they were trapped by alleged harassment and drastically declining property values, it appears likely the fate of their mutual plight will now be decided not by a judgement of freedom of speech or tapemeasured right of way infractions, but simply who is willing to spend the most money. When the sheer outrageousness, as my grandmother used to say, of Ansell’s emotional reaction to losing his holiday display wasn’t enough to provoke local or county authorities to intervene, fines for “litter” or “trash,” (and it’s easy to justify labeling much of the lawn artwork as “trash”) can, and have been, levied in an attempt to reach the same result and remove the “religious shrine.”

20160109-BZV_1687Still, the Ansells continue to persist, at great cost, in keeping the home a landmark in offensiveness. Sounding tired, Bill Ansell even suggested the possibility he could be swayed with a peace offering of $100,000, meeting him halfway in covering the alleged $200,000. As we might’ve been headed toward a breakthrough, a Channel 11 news correspondent spotted us and stepped onto the Ansell property from the safety of the roadway. I turned back to look at Ansell, but the interview was clearly over. Despite reacting quickly, my finger pistols were less than convincing in intimidating the anchorman.

He wasn’t the only reporter revisiting the Ansell house story this year, and if opportunistic local news is an indicator species, their renewed interest might be a sign that 2016 will be the year the fate of the lawn display is finally decided. Perhaps most tellingly, there’s no inspiring or intimidating “win or lose” position or promise from either side; as the years have worn on, everyone seems to realize what they lost.

Everyone, including me.

I hope I’m speaking for a lot of people when I say, “Thank you. Thank you for setting up, putting on, or putting up with the happy years.”