Wichita neighbors' long-term feud builds after signs

A bitter and surreal feud among families at one corner of Wichita's east-side College Hill neighborhood has raised questions about blight, tolerance, common courtesy and freedom of speech.

The years-long battle drew attention from neighbors and passing motorists in October, when David Grebenik posted six hand-written signs on the east side of his house at Second and Bluff.

The signs accuse neighbor Stephenie Vega of calling Grebenik's family a "house full of retards." Vega's name and address are on the signs, along with Grebenik's statement that he has a "mentally challenged" son and a daughter who is blind and has cerebral palsy.

Affecting neighbors

The feud took another turn recently when Grant and Janet Rine, who live across the street from Grebenik, decided to move. The couple plans to lease the 3,000-square-foot prairie-style house they've been restoring for nearly a decade.

"The emotional abuse alone has taken my health from me," Janet Rine said. "There's a lot of this type of thing going on in neighborhoods, and people are helpless.... We simply can't take it anymore."

Grebenik, a self-employed contractor, says he's being unfairly targeted by neighbors and "harassed" by police and city inspectors over the condition of his property.

"I do not instigate anything. All I do is react to it," he said.

He said the signs were prompted by an argument with Vega and her husband, Steve, in October during which she allegedly hurled an insult that "crossed the line."

"I'm sensitive about this because I have wonderful children," Grebenik said. "I don't care if you hate me to death, but don't bring my children into it."

Vega, a grandmother and retired gas company technician, says she was walking her dog that October day and "trying to avoid" Grebenik when he shouted an obscenity at her.

"I told him that his whole family had issues, that they had serious problems and it all stems from him," she said. Vega said she doesn't remember using the term "retards," adding, "I was so angry. Now I have just blocked it out."

Grebenik said he shouted an obscenity, but that it was directed at Steve Vega.

Stephenie Vega said she was "upset but not shocked" when she saw signs with her name go up beneath a skull-and-crossbones Halloween decoration. Grebenik crafted them from campaign yard signs left over from his unsuccessful bid for Wichita City Council in 2007.

He has since replaced the skull and crossbones with an enormous Christmas wreath and smiling Santa Claus, but the signs remain.

Signs are legal

And they're legal, say city officials.

Because the signs are on private property, are a reasonable size and don't contain profanity or advertise a commercial venture, they don't violate city ordinances, said assistant city attorney Jeff VanZandt.

"It might be tacky or rude, but we can't do anything," VanZandt said. "This just catches us in an area where we really don't have any authority."

Police officers also responded to complaints about the signs and determined that "they don't constitute a criminal matter," said Capt. Hassan Ramzah.

"There's not anything particular of a threatening nature," Ramzah said. "With these kinds of things, they become First Amendment issues."

That has left neighborhood officials and many who live in the area angry and frustrated.

Julia Wagle, 84, who has lived near Second and Bluff for 50 years, called the signs "ridiculous" and said they have tarnished an otherwise cordial neighborhood.

"Even if she said it — and I doubt very much that she said it — you still forgive people and you move on," Wagle said. "It's just ridiculous that somebody is hanging onto that so long, and everybody who drives by has to see it."

Grebenik has been known in the neighborhood for ongoing complaints about his home that started in 2001. Neighbors have distributed fliers and complained to city inspectors.

The city has repeatedly inspected his property and noted problems such as dilapidated siding, trash in the yard and untagged or inoperable vehicles, said Kurt Schroeder, superintendent of central inspection.

Grebenik says repairs to the property are taking longer than expected because he doesn't have a lot of money for materials, and also because of repeated visits from city inspectors.

"Because I do a lot of the work myself, it's affordable. It's just that every time I start something, the city shows up," he said.

A history of problems

In 2005, Janet Rine filed a restraining order against Grebenik, accusing him of trying to hit her with his vehicle while she distributed fliers for a neighborhood meeting. Grebenik denied that and, a week later, filed a petition for protection from stalking against the Rines. A judge declined to grant his request.

Instead, Judge Jeffrey Goering granted a one-year no-contact order in the summer of 2006, barring Grebenik from communicating with Janet Rine or going near the Rines' property.

"Supposedly I'm this horrible human being," Grebenik said. "She says I poisoned their cats, that I tried to hit her with my car. None of that happened."

Wichita City Council member Sue Schlapp, whose district includes College Hill, said she is "quite familiar with the issues" at Second and Bluff.

"We've had dealings... over several years," Schlapp said. "Every time, he's left to get the work done, and the work doesn't get done."

More troublesome, she said, is the history of arguments, accusations, insults and feuding. Schlapp and Mayor Carl Brewer met with Grebenik and his neighbors last fall, before the signs went up, to try to resolve the dispute.

"We met with the attitude not of, 'We are the city. You must do what we say,' but 'Is there a way we can come to a compromise and get along?' " Schlapp said.

Trying to make peace

The signs are the latest chapter in a saga, Schlapp said. And although she acknowledges Grebenik's right to post the signs, "We hope that he would see it works better to get along with the neighbors."

After Grebenik posted the signs more than three months ago, Vega says people started driving past her home to stare or take pictures. She took the numbers off her house in a futile attempt at anonymity.

"My kids are so upset. They say, 'Sell the house. Get out of there.' But we can't sell our house.... We can't afford to move," she said.

Now she tries to ignore the signs. But she worries about property values and the effect on the neighborhood, especially for those trying to sell or rent homes in the area.

"I've gone to neighbors and apologized," Vega said. "I feel terrible. There's really nothing else I can do."

Grebenik said he has no plans to remove the signs anytime soon.

"It's funny to me how everybody is upset about the signs. They're not upset about what was said. It's like, 'It's OK that it goes on. We just don't want to know about it and don't want to see it,' " he said.

The College Hill Neighborhood Association sent a letter to Grebenik and his neighbors in December, asking him to remove the signs and urging all parties to "consider the negative effects the stress of continual arguing and bad feelings has on your own family, friends and neighbors."

"If the signs are not taken down or if there is a continuation of antagonistic behavior... the problem will continue to exist forever," wrote Bill Hess, president of the College Hill board.

Hess said he wishes city leaders could enact a "negative signage" ordinance that would prevent signs like the ones on Grebenik's house. Schlapp and others say such an ordinance likely would face constitutional challenges.

"At some point, common courtesy is more important than anything," Hess said.

"My suggestion is simply to look forward and not to keep looking backward and talking about who fired the first shot," he said. "With any kind of conflict, you have to trust people to be kind to each other and do the right thing."