Almost 200 feet above Buttermilk Pike Self Storage in Crescent Springs, Kentucky, a large American flag flies in the wind visible from miles around. Down on the ground, a legal battle plays itself out between the local planning and zoning board and facility owner John Huffman.
“I tell people that I am one of three owners: it’s me, the bank, and the taxman,” Huffman said.
At 199.35 feet the flagpole is the tallest in Kentucky, just barely tall enough to avoid compliance with Federal Aviation Administration regulations.
Building the flagpole
Huffman, 59, says the flagpole is a tribute to his mother-in-law—a Cuban exile who fled the country after Fidel Castro took power. Her husband was a counterrevolutionary that was jailed for his participation in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Huffman’s mother-in-law and her sister made their way to a Catholic convent in Kentucky.
Over 28 years of marriage with his wife Isa, Huffman said he heard so many stories about her family’s ordeal that he “became not only proud to be an American, but just thankful to be here.”
The flag is further dedicated to “Veterans, Active Duty Military, First Responders and the Freedom We All Enjoy.”
It cost Huffman more than $160,000 to erect the flagpole, including costs for engineering, inspections, drilling, concrete, rebar, cranes, a winch system, flags and of course the pole itself. (Watch the impressive video of its construction here.)
The flagpole fight begins
But now, Huffman’s freedom to keep the flagpole up is under threat. Ten days after erecting the flag pole in December 2010, county planning and development services notified him that he was in violation of the city of Crescent Springs zoning ordinance. As it turns out, the maximum height for flagpoles is 40 feet, they said. The planning department also said he didn’t get the permits needed.
Huffman said the code is ambiguous, and that five engineering firms and two contractors worked on the project and did not identify a need for special permits. Huffman requested a variance but was defeated in a 2 to 1 in a vote of the Crescent Springs Board of Adjustments. Huffman’s lawyer filed a complaint that the city’s ordinance is arbitrary and unconstitutional.
As the Fourth of July approaches, we checked in with Huffman at Buttermilk Self Storage to get an update on his case.
Here is what Huffman had to say about the flagpole, self-storage, and freedom:
What’s the latest with the lawsuit?
Huffman: “The latest with the lawsuit is that it will be reviewed by a judge. It is on her list of cases to review. My lawyers and I remain confident. The zoning regulations are ambiguous, at best. There is another very large flagpole nearby at the national headquarters of the Disabled American Veterans with a very, very large flag. It is also taller than what is allowed. It is technically in a different city, but the Planning and Zoning people wrote the regulations for both small municipalities. “
“I think that the Planning and Zoning people are hesitant to change the wording of the regulations because that could be argued that is their admission that the regulations need to be clarified.”
Do you think the attention has impacted business in any way?
Huffman: “The issue has certainly cost a lot of money in legal fees. The nicest thing from my perspective is the outpouring of support from local people. After the Board of Adjustments voted to force me to remove it (that’s what prompted my lawsuit),, a former mayor of Crescent Springs was so embarrassed that she baked chocolate chip cookies and brought them to our office. Last Christmas, people dropped off other cookies, two bottles of champagne, a bottle of Maker’s 46 bourbon and a nice certificate from the Sons of the American Revolution.”
“Just today, someone saw me near my office and thanked me for putting up the flagpole and gave me words of encouragement. We have a “Go Fund Me” account that received some donations for the legal expenses.”
What will you do if you lose? Do you have to take it down? Are there any fines?
Huffman: “If we lose, we will appeal it to the Kentucky Supreme Court and then the US Supreme Court, if needed. I don’t know if there are fines. There are no provisions in the zoning ordinances warning property owners of things like that.”
“There is also an element of private property rights. This is my land. I paid for the flagpole with my money and it has been so well received by the community.”
How did you come to get involved in self storage? What other jobs have you had?
Huffman: “My first experience with self storage was in the late ’70s. I was in high school and had already started a business building and renovating athletic fields. Since my mom and dad wouldn’t let me keep equipment at “their” house, I stored at a Public Storage in Florence Kentucky. Over the years, I grew the athletic field business large enough that it covered six states. When my daughter, who is now 28, was not quite a year old, I built a soccer field for the professional soccer team in Nashville Tennessee. While I was in Nashville for a couple of weeks building the soccer field, I realized that I should be “home” with my wife and baby. So, as I wondered what else I could do, I remembered storage from years earlier. My wife and I went to an SSA show in San Diego and learned a lot in a week.”
“Another factor that got me into storage is my recollection that when I was a kid, my seven sisters used to babysit for the Cincinnati Reds players. As players would get traded to other teams, some of them would store their stuff in my mom and dad’s basement. I saw the need for storage.”
Tell me more about the facilities you built.
Huffman: “My first property, Beechgrove Self Storage has 819 storage units, including 158 parking spaces. In 2018, I started Buttermilk Pike Self Storage. There are 537 units at this location including 26 parking spaces. One notable feature of the Buttermilk Pike location is the 3 story building with a 7,000 capacity elevator. There are drive up accessible, non climate controlled units and climate controlled units too.”
What are your plans for the 4th of July?
Huffman: “Our plans for the 4th of July are as always: we are involved in three local parades. We will have four vehicles that are branded and decorated. Two of them are U-Haul vans with our name and logo on them, and two small diesel utility vehicles that we use on our properties. We throw out thousands of small Tootsie Rolls to people that are lined up along the parade route. We also have a T-shirt cannon that we use to shoot off t-shirts at special events.”
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