'Phonehenge West' creator jailed: When folk art and building codes collide

The builder of a fantastical fortress in the Mojave Desert has been sentenced to jail for failing to pay for the demolition of his life's work. Why art isn't sacred in the eyes of code enforcers.

Reed Saxon/AP
Kim Fahey with his Phonehenge monument at his home in a mountainous arid area north of Los Angeles. He was sentenced to jail because he failed to pay for its demolition.

The bearded builder of "Phonehenge West," a structure that became a famed piece of Mojave Desert folk art, is heading to jail after a Los Angeles County judge found he wasn't paying enough toward the demolition of the fortress.

Los Angeles County charged builder Alan Kimble "Kim" Fahey $82,000 last year to demolish the structure, which included a 70-foot tower, stained-glass windows, a working windmill, and a replica of a Viking house in Antelope Valley, some 50 miles north of Los Angeles. This week, L.A. County Superior Court Judge Daviann Mitchell sentenced him to 539 days in jail after raising doubts about his inability to make payments on the bill.

The judge's decision has sparked outrage among Fahey supporters, who claimed the structure should have been protected as a unique example of American folk art. But citing administrative law, most pointedly requirements that county residents get prior approval before embarking on massive building projects, code enforcers refused to budge, a jury backed them up, and the judge is set on enforcing the sentence.

Mr. Fahey's lawyer is working to get him released earlier. But the plight of Phonehenge West and its builder has reverberated across the country, not only for the questions it raises about the priorities of the code enforcement system, but also how it highlights the rare breed of building artists who ply their trade across the US – often, but not always – unmolested.

"I've received photos of other folks' projects and tree houses … most are being shut down and attacked. Why?" Mr. Fahey wrote on Facebook in October. "Building and Safety, Regional Planning, Inspectors, etc., will say your materials don't meet their engineering requirements, or, will charge you so much money to comply with their constantly changing rules and regulations your dreams are destroyed. Its basically COMPLY OR DIE....."

Code reform advocate David Lewis has led the charge on behalf of Fahey, outlining the plight of "Phonehenge" on Facebook. In a story before the demolition of Phonehenge last year, the LA Times wrote, "People come from all over to take pictures. Glamour magazine recently used the tower as the setting for one of its fashion spreads. Fahey hopes that Phonehenge West might one day be unearthed by archeologists, just like the English Stonehenge. But Stonehenge's creators presumably didn't have to worry about building codes."

"Kim's case was striking both by its nature and because of the visual impact of the work that he's done on his property," Mr. Lewis told the Huffington Post. Lewis has charged that Fahey is the victim of "administrative sabotage," or the county's outright refusal to entertain compromises proffered by Fahey.

In last year's jury trial, the retired phone company technician was found guilty on a dozen misdemeanor building code violations. Fahey never got building permits for the structures, and code enforcement officers said the structure was dangerous. The county had to cart away 53 tons of telephone poles and 280 tons of debris.

Tony Bell, a spokesman for Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, told the LA Times last year that desert communities spent years developing building codes to "have development standards that protect their public safety and preserve their quality of life, just like anywhere else."

But even while rogue "treehouse builders" find condemnation in community standards, they're also gaining broader acclaim, not the least through HGTV's series "Home Strange Home."

In a recent article on a Washington State building artist named SunRay Kelley, the New York Times documented how "Mr. Kelley has built perhaps 50-odd chimerical structures across the continent, from freaky folk palaces to Smurf huts."

In a Facebook post, Rhoda Bruce writes about Mr. Kelley: "the guy stands on Artistic Expression.... that's what keeps the government out of the equation. ( for now).” She then suggests to Mr. Fahey: "you could move out here to Ga. nobody snoops around too much out in the woods out here, they're afraid they may get shot... funny cause most folks are really very nice."

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