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Growing Concerns about Greenbelt Gardening

Local Matters


Published June 1, 2005 at 4:00 p.m.

Nelida Willette kneels alongside a narrow patch of ground in front of her house at 163 North Champlain in Burlington. She sets a colorful burst of geraniums in the ground, tamps the soil, and then moves on to the pansies. Willette and her husband, George, have lived in this Old North End house for 19 years. Every spring without fail, they've gardened on the small strip of land between the sidewalk and the curb -- land that belongs to the city but that property owners are obligated to maintain.

"Everyone in the neighborhood waits for my tulips to come up," Willette says, displaying a photo of the bright red flowers she on her cell phone. "They say to me, 'That's always the first sign of spring we look for.'"

Next door, Genevieve Jacobs is cultivating a slightly different sensory experience on her curbside plot: fragrant aromatics such as lavender, oregano, mint and thyme. Jacobs says she doesn't mind if passersby take a pinch or two -- "It's peace-promoting and it makes people happier," she says.

Green space is at a real premium in large sections of the Old North End. On some blocks, the only flowers in bloom are the dandelions that sprout from cracks in the sidewalk. But in recent years, many city residents like Willette and Jacobs have invested considerable time and money to landscape the "greenbelts" outside their front doors.

These decorative displays could soon get hit with a hard freeze -- not from the weather, but by a pending city ordinance. Next week, the Burlington City Council will consider a "Greenbelt Vegetation Ordinance" that would set new standards for how property owners and tenants must maintain the small grassy knolls outside their homes.

The new measures were prompted by a number of growing concerns, explains Bob Whalen, the superintendent of park planning and development. Last summer, Whalen says his office fielded about 30 complaints a week about residents who weren't maintaining their greenbelts according to requirements spelled out in existing city law. On some streets, people allowed grass or weeds to become overgrown. In other spots, folks planted flowers or shrubs that damaged tree roots, blocked the views of drivers or pedestrians, encroached upon the sidewalk, or posed a fire hazard.

The new law now under consideration would establish uniform standards for what could be planted on city property.

"More and more people are taking an interest in landscaping the greenbelts, which we feel is a good thing," Whalen says. "We're not saying people can't do it -- as a matter of fact, this [ordinance] sort of legitimizes it -- but we're just giving it some structure."

The new rules would prevent people from planting anything but grass within the "drip line" of a city-owned tree -- that is, the area beneath its canopy. Residents would also be prohibited from installing planting boxes or other structures without prior permission from the city arborist. Vegetation could not block a street or sidewalk, and grass could not be any taller than eight inches high.

Jim Flint, executive director of the nonprofit Friend of Burlington Gardens, doesn't agree with all the proposed rules; for example, he'd like to see a "grandfather clause" to protect existing gardens. But he says his group is taking a "middle-of-the-road approach" to the greenbelt ordinance. He does hope, however, that the city will recognize many Burlingtonians' budding desire to beautify their blocks.

"This ordinance suggests that people really want to have some gardens and they're doing it in whatever way they can," says Flint. He notes that many city residents live more than a mile from the nearest community garden plots.

While the new rules would apply citywide, Whalen recognizes that their impact would be felt largely in the Old North End, where about 125 greenbelts have been landscaped. But Whalen says most of these are already in compliance -- or would need only minor changes. Residents who don't comply with the new rules would have seven days to make the necessary alterations -- or face a $50 fine.

"I think it's preposterous," says Progressive City Councilor Tim Ashe, who represents Ward 3. "One of the things that makes Burlington a unique and lively place is the care that many people put into the greenbelts." He says he doesn't want these efforts to be discouraged "because the city arborist has put handcuffs on us."

Ashe, who was appointed to the Ordinance Committee in April, voted against moving the bill out of committee, but was overruled two to one. He says he can't understand why the Parks & Recreation Department has taken such a keen interest in this issue, since there hasn't been a huge public outcry against these little gardens, nor much evidence that they pose a serious public nuisance or a drain on city resources.

"There are people in the city with heroin problems," Ashe adds. "We shouldn't be wasting our time talking about daffodils on Peru Street."