For years, a woman has displayed a small memorial on her property, honoring “those who serve.” However, the city went after her, demanding that she remove the “obsolete” statue or pay a $500 daily fine. Unfortunately for them, she found a way to hit them back.
In 2011, Leigh Gardella-Wood and her family moved onto a property in Winthrop Harbor, Illinois. The quaint piece of land belonged to the Spring Bluff Elementary School until it shut down the same year. Excitedly, the family went to work on the property but wanted to keep the original feel.
Along with leaving the old elementary school sign, the family decided to preserve a small memorial “dedicated to those who serve” and lost their lives due to the September 11 terror attacks. No bigger than a large headstone, the boulder reads “We Shall Never Forget,” and lists the memorial’s various donors.
Years after buying the property, Gardella-Wood received an unexpected letter in the mail. According to WMAQ-TV, Winthrop Harbor city officials used their executive power to order the homeowner to remove the memorial or face a fine of up to $500 per day for what they’ve determined is an “obsolete” display.
“Any obsolete sign shall be removed by the owner, agent or person having the beneficial use of the building, structure or lot upon which such sign is located within ten days after the cessation of such business or sale of such product that renders the sign obsolete,” the letter reads. “You will have 14 days from the date of this letter to bring your property into compliance,” the letter states, or face a fine of “not less than $25 nor more than $500 for each violation and each day’s failure to comply…”
Gardella-Wood was shocked that the city would concern itself with her choice of decor on her own property. With time against her, she scrambled for ideas to be able to keep the memorial on her land.
“I have never heard of a plaque being an issue. There are people who have plaques in their yard all over the place— it is not gaudy, it is not hurting anybody,” Gardella-Wood said. “I think this is needed. We have a lot of people who are veterans. By the village wanting it gone, it hurts. People come here and reflect or to get away.”
Incredibly, it didn’t take long for the clever woman to come up with a plan to fight back against the city’s overreach. Leigh Gardella-Wood immediately gathered supportive veterans and headed to the local media with her issue. Soon, she had the attention of not only the entire community but also the city officials.
“I don’t know what to think because I don’t understand what they are thinking,” she said of the village. “I don’t understand how a community that is so close, that they would find a plaque or memorial obsolete.”
Within days, there was such a backlash against the city that Mayor Dr. Michael A. Bruno was forced to address the issue publicly. In a twist of fate, the mayor sincerely apologized to Gardella-Wood and confirmed that she would be allowed to keep the memorial without fear of fines.
“Corrective action taken by the owner now confirms to us that the site does continue to serve as an active 911 Memorial and therefore the sign is not obsolete as defined by the village sign code ordinance. Based on this information the sign does not have to be removed,” Mayor Bruno said in a statement. “To the extent that any misunderstanding of the actions taken to address the described property maintenance issues may have offended those who are or have served our country it was not our intent and we sincerely apologize.”
Gardella-Wood was relieved at the mayor’s intervention but adds that the memorial never should’ve been questioned in the first place. She pointed out the importance of honoring those who lost their lives or loved ones on that tragic day and vowed that she will keep the display as long as possible.
“People worked really hard to have that put there. People died on 9/11,” Gardella-Wood continued. “It’s not something we can just forget.”
The victory comes after a lengthy battle with city officials. Gardella-Wood explained that they have been trying to remove the memorial from her property for over a year but were reluctant to do so.
Leigh Gardella-Wood and the community are celebrating their win against the city. Fortunately, the display will remain in her yard and those who still wish to honor the fallen of 9/11 by visiting the memorial may do so anytime they please.
Still, it’s disturbing to see government officials injecting themselves into the private lives of the citizens they’re supposed to be serving, especially when they should have bigger issues to resolve.