CARPINTERIA — For three years, people in this coastal town have been arguing over what should be done with the 25-foot-tall Santa Claus that looms over U.S. 101.
But the arrival of the rainy season has made the controversy personal for Mary Lou Dodson. The owner of Santa's Candy Kitchen, known for its date shakes, put buckets under her leaking roof and posted signs to alert customers during last week's rain.
"He's a very leaky guy," said Dodson. The 10,000-pound Santa stands directly above her shop.
Dodson said that "for a long time I tried to stay neutral" in the debate over whether Santa should be removed, as the building's owner wants, or preserved, as some local fanciers of roadside Americana demand.
"Then I saw pictures of him rotting inside," Dodson said. The structure is made of chicken wire and plaster. It has smiled down on travelers along the coast for 50 years.
She also heard reports from consultants who warned that Santa might come down not through the chimney but through the roof during a heavy rain or an earthquake.
"I changed my tune," said Dodson, who worked in the candy store for a decade before buying it this year. "Now I want him off."
So does Dr. Steve Kent, who has been waging a long-running battle with officials of Santa Barbara County. Kent said the whole Santa Claus Lane commercial strip has lost much of its appeal since the days when family vacations consisted of long car trips that included frequent stops at kitschy roadside attractions.
Kent wanted to scrap the North Pole theme and replace it with a seaside village model. It was time, he decided, to get Santa off the roof. "This is a detraction, not an attraction," he said.
Preservationists didn't agree. They connect Santa, rot and all, with childhood memories of Bing Crosby TV specials and the Roger Wagner Chorale on the hi-fi.
Now things are at a stalemate. Kent has sued the county. "Enough is enough," he said.
The county says that if Kent had just followed the process, the problems might now be resolved.
In the meantime, Dodson is left alone with the leaking Santa, waiting for the next rainfall.