National News

An Urban Jungle Serves as a Battleground Over ‘Perfect Square Lawns’

Posted December 26, 2017 7:16 p.m. EST
Updated December 26, 2017 7:18 p.m. EST

NEW LONDON, Conn. — The jungle rises at the end of the block, past a few narrow clapboard houses, where an old station wagon is parked on the road. What neighbors said was once a small patch of bamboo has swelled over the years into a thicket, reaching above the utility lines, pushing to the edge of the property and nearly swallowing a white house on Borodell Place, with only a sliver left poking out.

Neighbors have noticed visitors creeping toward the end of the dead-end street to glimpse the bamboo, and on a local Facebook page one person suggested bringing in a panda, which could “clear it right up.”

The city of New London has declared the overgrowth of bamboo a blight. But officials said the resident, Carlos Carrion, has failed to pay fines and has ignored orders to cut back the plant. Now, he has become one of the first to be criminally charged under the city’s expanded blight ordinance.

It is not the first time New London, a working-class city on the Connecticut coast, has been embroiled in a dispute like this. The city became known across the country for an intense fight more than a decade ago between government officials and a homeowner who refused to yield her private property to make way for a waterfront development. The case reached the Supreme Court in Washington and led to a landmark decision on eminent domain.

This time the case is smaller, the stakes seemingly lower, but it has led to yet another attention-grabbing showdown between local officials and a resident resisting their demands.

Carrion maintains that the city’s interest in his property is politically motivated, coming as retaliation for his outspokenness. At a public hearing related to a separate blight case, involving a different homeowner, he called the case against him a “witch hunt.” He said the bamboo was a gift from a friend, a Vietnam War veteran, and he keeps it as a tribute to him. He eats the bamboo, he said, and uses it to construct furniture. It is also, in his view, a rebellion against “perfect square lawns.”

“The bamboo I grow is not invasive,” Carrion said at a hearing this year, according to The Day, New London’s newspaper, which has covered the case closely. “I maintain the plants. It stays within the perimeter of my property and yet it’s considered to be a blight?” In New London, a port city of 27,000 people bordered by the Thames River and Long Island Sound, residents have become accustomed to a roller coaster looping through episodes of colorful municipal politics and flashes of optimism for a revival before returning to chronic economic distress.

The landmark eminent domain case, Kelo vs. New London, stemmed from one effort at economic recovery. The local government condemned waterfront homes in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood to make way for a planned hotel and housing as the city lured the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, which moved the headquarters of its research division here. The case came to be defined by the plaintiff’s “little pink house,” which was moved elsewhere after the Supreme Court ruled in the city’s favor in 2005. (In 2009, eight years after its arrival, Pfizer left the city.)

Carrion’s case has stretched for nearly a year, beginning when he was cited in January after the city’s blight officer received a complaint from the mayor’s office, officials said. He was found to have violated an ordinance that limits the growth of plants, except for shrubs, bushes and other cultivated plants, to 10 inches, said Kenyon Haye, New London’s blight inspector. When Carrion did not take sufficient action after 60 days, Haye said, the city pursued the case again as a criminal violation. He was charged in state Superior Court in August, and he has pleaded not guilty.

“We couldn’t ignore the situation because the neighbors have had enough of it,” Michael Passero, the mayor of New London, said. “The neighbors have been reaching out to me for two or three years.”

Connecticut allows violations of zoning and building ordinances to be considered criminal offenses, with punishment including fines of up to $250 a day. But Sara Bronin, a law professor at the University of Connecticut, said that local governments often rely on other measures, such as placing liens on property, as a way to encourage a property owner to act or allow the city to make needed alterations and then recoup the expense. “That’s more common these days than the blunt instrument of criminal proceedings,” she said.

A variety of the plant known as running bamboo can spread by as much as 5 feet a year and can grow just as much in height. Some forms of bamboo are regarded as invasive plants in several states, including New York, where selling, transporting or planting them has been barred. Running bamboo is not considered an invasive species in Connecticut, though there are limits on where it can be planted, and plant sellers are required to warn buyers that it is a fast-growing plant that needs to be contained.

Carrion, who declined through his lawyer to comment, has said that the bamboo on his property is of the “clumping” variety, which grows much slower and is considered easier to maintain. He also said that he keeps the plant from crossing from his property.

He contends that the case is essentially political, driven by the mayor, and he has hired a former mayor as his lawyer.

“My client believes it’s retaliation,” Daryl Justin Finizio, his lawyer, said, “that so much is being done to him by the city because he’s a politically outspoken person in the community who has spoken at blight hearings for other people.” One of those involved a homeowner who sought to create what she described as an “ecological landscape,” where naturalized plants could grow and invasive plants that were not native to the area were removed.

“I am excited to be part of a growing movement of citizens to reverse the environmentally destructive side-effects of the American obsession with manicured lawns and landscapes,” the homeowner, Maggie Redfern, who is also the deputy director of the Connecticut College Arboretum in New London, wrote in a letter to officials.

The case was ultimately dismissed, with the blight hearing officer finding that her yard was “exactly the opposite of a ‘neglected or abandoned property.’”

Borodell Place, where Carrion lives, is a stub of a road sprouting off a busier street. It has only seven houses, which occupy tiny parcels, with almost no yards and front doors just steps from the pavement. Carrion’s property takes up less than two-tenths of an acre, but the thick tangle of bamboo, often too dense to traverse, is certainly conspicuous.

But on such a small block, where residents have gotten to know one another and, more or less, get along, some do not see the bamboo as much of a problem. “He’s very quiet,” Debbie Mullane, who has lived at the other end of the block for a decade, said of Carrion. “He’s a nice person.”

Neighbors said they have groused over the years about having to cut back the stalks that crept over property lines or simply how unsightly it is. Still, Kurt Nielsen, who has lived here for 18 years and remembers when the bamboo was just a small patch, questioned the forcefulness of the city’s response. “It’s just kind of a lose-lose situation for everybody,” he said.