In Concord, a land use case over an overgrown garden gets emotional

  • Pauline Copeley stands in her backyard in Concord on Monday. The city is asking the Copeleys to clean up their property, which they say violates several city housing codes. Caitlin Andrews photos / Monitor staff

  • Pauline Copeley stands in her Concord backyard Monday. The city is asking the Copeleys to clean up their property, which they say violates several city housing codes. Caitlin Andrews / Monitor staff

  • Pauline Copeley stands in her backyard on Monday, July 15, 2019. The city is asking the Copeley's to clean up their property, which they say violates several city housing codes. Caitlin Andrews—Monitor staff

  • Pauline Copeley tends to the compost in her backyard on Monday, July 15, 2019. The city is asking the Copeley's to clean up their property, which they say violates several city housing codes. Caitlin Andrews—Monitor staff

  • Pauline Copeley shows off some worms from the compost in her backyard on Monday, July 15, 2019. The city is asking the Copeley's to clean up their property, which they say violates several city housing codes. Caitlin Andrews—Monitor staff

  • Pauline Copeley picks some blackberries growing in her backyard on Monday, July 15, 2019. The city is asking the Copeley's to clean up their property, which they say violates several city housing codes. Caitlin Andrews—Monitor staff

  • A sign reading "Don't be a silly goose" leans against a planter containing a tomato plant in the Copeley's backyard on Monday, July 15, 2019. The city is asking the Copeley's to clean up their property, which they say violates several city housing codes. Caitlin Andrews—Monitor staff

  • Plants grow out of shoes in the Copeleys’ backyard.

Monitor staff
Published: 7/20/2019 6:29:44 PM

Pauline Copeley moved through her Liberty Street backyard with ease, plucking blackberries from the bushes flanking a trellis wound with green grapes.

She pointed out the tomatoes, corn, broccoli and kale growing in the dirt, in tires, in planters and a pair of leftover shoes overgrown with moss. The crops are interspersed with jewelweed and other plants. The only thing green she’s unsure of is a young tree offering green fruits. Could be peaches, maybe nectarines.

In the south corner, old toys sit next to stacks of empty planters. In the north corner, a bridge of cardboard covered by a mat leads to an active compost pile. A shady tree out front masks a porch swing, chairs and a few old grills.

The yard may be messy, but Copeley said its good attributes outweigh the bad.

“It doesn’t really bother me too much. It can be a little embarrassing at times,” Copeley said. “I’d like it to be a bit tidier, but it’s a lot of work.

“People complain about it, but we feel pretty peaceful about it,” she continued.

Some of her neighbors and the city of Concord don’t share her rosy view of the property.

The city hit the Copeleys with a code violation in May, citing sanitation, sidewalks and driveways, rodent harborage and garbage accumulation after neighbors complained about the property, according to a May 21 notice.

The Copeleys have made efforts to clean their property up, but city officials say it’s not good enough, according to a series of communications between the city and the Copleys provided to the Monitor.

The family has lived in the home for 33 years, and at ages 68 and 70, they say it’s hard to keep up with the physical demands of a yard. In addition, caring for a son with disabilities takes up a good chunk of their time and energy.

In early July, the city’s housing inspector, Lissa Salvatore, said the Copeleys weren’t moving fast enough.

“I did take a drive by and the process I have seen is not really acceptable at all. You know, the prosecutor is going to start proceedings,” Salvatore said in a July 3 voicemail left on Copeley’s cell phone. “...I want to acknowledge that I got your letter, but there’s still a multitude of work. I’m still getting complaints, so this can’t be dragged out.”

This week, the Copeleys and the city came to an agreement: the family would hire a contractor to remove debris from the property, and then a landscaper to remove overgrown vegetation. The Copeleys will have to provide the city with a copy of their contract, and the work will have to be completed by Aug. 11.

For the Copeleys, the situation has been frustrating and emotional.

Pauline Copeley has been brought to tears. She wonders why a messy yard has people upset.

“We spend a lot of time taking care of our son, but we also spend a lot of time enjoying our property,” she said, tears again welling in her eyes. “We don’t just sit there and do nothing.”

“We’re not making a lot of noise and disturbing the neighbors, we don’t have parties,” Copeley said. “I don’t know why they don’t just accept us.”

William Copeley said he knows his house is different, but he likes it that way.

“I’m very happy with the yard. I’d rather live here than in a fancy mansion with nothing around it. The inside of your house could be great, but whenever you go out,” he trailed off before finishing, “you lose your connection with your environment.”

A growing problem

The first time the city took issue with the Copeleys’ property was in April 2014.

Salvatore wrote then in a letter that she found “an accumulation of rubbish” on the land after receiving a complaint about the property.

A month later, she extended the deadline for the Copeleys’ clean up by 30 days “in consideration of the amount of effort it will take it to achieve satisfactory results.”

By October, the city had decided to let the matter rest despite seeing little progress.

“You have nonetheless stated that a number of items … are being used for various purposes,” Salvatore wrote in an Oct. 17, 2014, letter. “Based on that representation, we have determined that it is appropriate to close the case at this time.”

Salvatore warned, however, that additional complaints about the property could trigger a citation without a warning.

The city issued a code violation notice to the Copeleys in May of this year and gave them a month to discard all sticks and branches; cardboard; broken buckets, flowerpots and materials; and any toys, outdoor furniture and grills in disrepair.

If they didn’t, the city could pursue civil or criminal legal action under state law. If courts ruled on their side, the family could face penalties of $275 for the first offense and $550 for subsequent offenses for each day the violation continues after a conviction is found.

The Copeleys were also asked to maintain their compost piles and to tame any weeds or plant growth to under 10 inches.

They tried to make progress, pulling up dead vegetation and hauling away recycling with the help of four of their children and a family friend.

One neighbor, Carol Cantwell, offered to assist them in their cleanup after making an initial complaint to the city.

Cantwell said she and other neighbors complained to the city because they want the property cleaned up.

She declined to say what specifically bothered her about the property. “You can see for yourself by looking at it,” she said.

Salvatore said via email that the city attempts to work with property owners and that compliance timeframes are based on the “magnitude of the problem and the amount of time reasonably needed to abate the violation(s).”

‘I’m very happy with the yard’

The Copeleys said they hope the city will keep working with them.

“Mention of the City Prosecutor has put FEAR into us,” they wrote to the city on July 5. “...We feel the purpose of these city codes is not to punish offenders, but to regulate them so they will change their ways, and we can assure you that we have changed.”

The Copeleys agree their yard could be better maintained. But they dispute that it’s full of rubbish and that there is a rodent problem.

Look at the good, they say: The trees keep their yard shady and their house cool, and the compost from their meals keeps the garden sustainable.

Or the bluebell and tansy flowers Pauline Copeley said her family had to pull up.

“I’m not going to be able to see that because my trying to please my neighbors by pulling all the plants I love so much,” she said.

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)




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