Jesus is said to have walked on water, but according to the St. Paul City Council he can't stand at the edge of a Mississippi River bluff.

On a 5-2 vote, the council Wednesday rejected Tuan Pham's request for a zoning variance to keep his back-yard statue of Jesus in the current spot high up on the West Side bluffs.

Pham, 76 and a retired Frogtown grocer, erected the 7-foot Jesus on a 10-foot base at his home on the 200 block of Isabel Avenue, placing it closer to the edge of the bluff than city rules permit.

"Give me the gift of hope for the future," Pham pleaded with the council before the evening vote. No one spoke against the variance and Mike "Sammy" Samuelson spoke of how Pham was a "pioneer" in the revitalization of University Avenue. He said Pham's statue, "is more of a garden; I'd liken it to a gnome, it's a big gnome."

Pham's Jesus is a replica of the Christ of Vung Tua, a 105-foot monument in Vietnam. Pham emigrated from Vietnam in 1980.

Council Members Dan Bostrom and Pat Harris argued that Pham be allowed to keep the statue in its spot, saying it didn't violate zoning laws because it is a garden, not a "development."

But Council President Kathy Lantry and Council Member Dave Thune said the ordinance is clear that in Mississippi River Corridor, a 40-foot setback from the bluff edge is required for any "material change in the use" of the land.

Lantry said the core legal question is: "Tell me why this property can't be put to a reasonable use without this variance." She said the variance isn't needed for reasonable use.

Harris and Bostrom voted to allow Jesus to stay put. Council Members Lee Helgen, Melvin Carter and Russ Stark joined Lantry and Thune against the variance.

Pham, who brought nearly two dozen family members and neighbors to the meeting, said, "I can't believe it." Asked if he would consider a lawsuit, Pham said, "Could be."

Samuelson had another idea, he told Pham: "Move it to the front yard!"

Rochelle Olson • 651-735-9749