For decades, the surreal sculptures and sparkling lights that have decorated a Palm Springs residence for the yearly Robolights display have been an delight to thousands of visitors itching to get a glimpse of the quirky holiday season attraction.
But homeowners in the upscale neighborhood see the free lights event as a nuisance that invites tourists to litter their streets.
After a two-year dispute that involved litigation, negotiations and hearings, the city of Palm Springs and the display’s creator, Kenny Irwin, have reached an agreement they hope everyone will be happy with.
Robolights will still take place on East Granvia Valmonte this year but will move to a larger, commercial area away from the neighborhood in 2019, Edward Kotkin, the city’s attorney, said in a council meeting Thursday night.
The city is paying Irwin $125,000 to move the display, his decades-long passion project.
Although the Palm Springs native was not available for comment Friday, he told The Times in a 2015 interview that he began executing his vision for an artistic light display in the 1980s when he was 12.
Every year, he transforms his father’s home — located in what some call “Movie Colony,” just around the corner from Frank Sinatra’s former estate — into a dazzling display of lights and sculptures.
Mingled with holiday decorations such as candy canes and Santa Clauses are an array of brightly colored robots, aliens and eerie creations, blanketed by more Christmas lights than you can count.
“I saw a lot of the bad things people were doing in the world,” Irwin said. “I wanted to do something, instead of cursing the darkness, to try to cast one light into it at a time to help make the world a brighter place.”
Irwin’s artistic style has always been a bit eccentric. At 15, he filled his dorm room at a boarding school near Ojai with so many twinkling Christmas lights, flood lamps and electronic equipment that fire officials determined it caused the dormitory to burn down.
“The kid was into light,” a fire investigator told The Times in 2015.
The Palm Springs display began with 75,000 lights in 1986 and grew from there, luring more visitors with each passing year. By 2015, Robolights spanned four acres and included 8 million lights.
Irwin said he’s spent thousands of hours building pieces for the spectacle, including 350 robots.
“I kind of think of it as a smile factory,” he said.
But not everyone is all smiles.
With the display’s growing popularity came more complaints. The city of Palm Springs filed a lawsuit in December 2016 against Irwin, saying Robolights was a public nuisance and a safety hazard for the public.
According to the lawsuit, residents complained that tour buses were making stops at the residence to allow commercial tours of the house. Neighbors also complained about an electrical fire in February 2016.
The city said “countless structures” on Irwin’s property were built without approvals or permits, including slides, a merry-go-round, ladders and a Ferris wheel. Of particular concern was a wall display and a large platform on the house’s roof that supported 30- to 45-foot-tall inflatable decorations.
“The platform, both with and without the inflatables, and the unsupported wall in the back yard, constitute immediate life safety hazard,” the lawsuit said.
After the city issued a “limited entry order” — which prohibited anyone other than Irwin from entering the residence — he let tourists in anyway, the suit alleged.
Ben Mehdian, Irwin’s attorney, said the city called for an injunction against his client to force him to stop holding the event.
The court ruled in Irwin’s favor, and the lawsuit was settled in December 2017. As part of that settlement, Robolights would continue but under certain terms and conditions outlined in a permit.
When the city and Irwin disagreed on terms for the 2018 event, both parties decided it was best not to fight and to move the attraction elsewhere.
Irwin said in 2015 that he was running out of space.
“My work is going to continue to grow, so it needs room to be able to spread to other places.”
Irwin had 30,000 visitors in 2016, and the tally jumped to more than 64,000 the following year, Mehdian said. That number is expected to go up this year.
“After 32 years, the popularity and the cost involving traffic, safety and neighbors’ issues have increased so much … that both the city and Kenny have agreed it’s time to find a larger location … that can make everyone happy,” he said.
The city of Palm Springs plans to pay for about $100,000 worth of traffic and safety management for this year’s event.