Front Yard Gardens -- Yes!


(This 864th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on October 14, 2007.)


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A Crescent Avenue Front Yard


A reader alerted me to the fact that a Crescent Avenue homeowner was cited by a city building inspector for "overabundant growth" in her front yard. She faced a court appearance and a possible $150 fine.


Oh my, I thought, here we go again: another Kenmore lawn dust-up.


I must insert here that I hate lawns. They represent the worst of monocultures with all their attendant problems and they have taken over our lives -- or in my family, my wife's life. Consider just one aspect of our overdevotion to them: How many billions of tax dollars would we save if, instead of maintaining those extensive expressway lawns, we quit mowing them, only bushhogging once or twice a year to control shrubbery growth?


Crescent Avenue in the Parkside District of Buffalo runs over half way around Delaware Park. It extends from Como Avenue north of the park all the way around to Humboldt in the south.


Before I learned the address of the cited homeowner, I drove down to Crescent Avenue to see the situation for myself. I found a typical older urban residential street with homes, some of them apparently two family "Bostons", squeezed into narrow lots, their front yards smaller than many living rooms. I'm sure that every night this street is lined with parked cars but during the day when I was there most of those cars were gone.


Despite the crowding, this is a most attractive street, and what make it attractive are the many front yard gardens along it. Buffalo in Bloom indeed; I suspect that prize winners reside here. Even now as the season is winding down, these gardens are rich with masses of lovely flowers with daisies and marigolds predominating.


Which of these yards was that of the cited culprit? As I drove, I listed over a dozen possibilities, none of them, however, in my view a reasonable target for an inspector. These were yards given over almost completely to gardens but they all appeared well tended even at this late season when rich growth so easily gets out of hand.


In any case, I decided that I would guess which was the cited property. I tried to place myself in the shoes of that building inspector and ranked the yards, recording house numbers. Then I returned home to check my e-mail. Among the messages was one identifying the house. When I compared it with my list I found it well down in the ranking.


Just what caused this nonsense? Apparently the building inspector had responded to a complaint. Defenders of the cited homeowner believe that the complainant is her political opponent. By the rules in force, this person remains unidentified. It is also the defenders' belief, which I share, that building inspectors are placed under unfair pressure when politicians hover over their shoulder. Thus the citation.


In a further e-mail exchange, one councilmember defended the inspector but complained about the process. To which Elizabeth Licata, the monitor of the excellent website, responded, "I think everyone's missing the point here. The questions are: What is the criteria for an acceptable front garden and what do building inspectors know about gardens and plants? What do building inspectors or residents know about sustainable gardening? Why must closely cropped grass be the norm? I think a lot of education is needed and the first in line should be city building inspectors."


This situation reached Mayor Brown's office and Richard Tobe, the city's Economic Development Commissioner, visited the yard. Tobe's lengthy and thorough report included his key findings: "I personally observed a very nice garden in very good condition for the end of our growing season. Any enforcement action that may have commenced should and will be terminated."


So this episode ends reasonably. I am, however, left with Elizabeth's concerns. I recognize the need for yard and bird feeder care, especially in light of our problems with rats in the suburbs as well as the city. And property values are adversely affected by poorly maintained neighborhoods. But local complaint systems are fraught with problems and the decisions by inspectors are too often arbitrary and not open to appeal.


Still more important, we need to reevaluate our ill considered devotion to lawns.-- Gerry Rising