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In New Jersey, some find it's not easy being green

August 12, 2007|Geoff Mulvihill | The Associated Press

EDGEWATER PARK, N.J. — Among the tidy brick ranch-style homes with close-cropped lawns on Stevenson Avenue, one yard sticks out like, well, a green thumb.

Vicki Wozniak's garden in this town near Philadelphia is designed to attract butterflies, hummingbirds and other winged creatures. It is one-eighth of an acre mostly covered by sunflowers, honeysuckle, azaleas and many other plantings.

But to local officials, her friendliness to wildlife looks like a nuisance. They've accused her of failing to maintain her property, a charge she is contesting. A municipal court trial is scheduled for Aug. 28.

Wozniak is not the only New Jersey resident trying to do right by the environment but running afoul of officials who want lawns to be neat, who don't want windmills in residential neighborhoods or are wary of solar panels.

The message the residents say they are getting: You can try to save Earth, but not in your backyard.

In July, Township Administrator Linda Doughterty told the Burlington County Times of Willingboro that she feared Wozniak's yard had become a mosquito breeding ground and was concerned that it didn't look like nearby properties.

"It is the position of the township that we feel this is a health and safety issue," she told the newspaper.

Environmentalists see the message as a major barrier to a greener Garden State.

"We've zoned for conformity," said Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club in New Jersey. "We have also taken away individuality and taken away the ability for originality."

After she bought her house about seven years ago, Wozniak, an information technology specialist, began adding to the landscaping, as she had at her previous homes. She let the shrubs get so big that they blocked her front windows. She put in butterfly bushes and a small pond.

The trouble began in 2003, when the township property inspector started leaving yellow warning stickers on her door, advising her that she needed to spruce things up.

"The rhododendron on the side couldn't be tall, the climbing rose couldn't climb, the pine needles needed to be picked up," Wozniak said.

She said she did what she was asked, even knocking down an old shed that was leaning. But she kept getting notices -- about 60 of them through 2005.

During that time, she went to an Audubon Society class on how to create a critter-friendly yard and had her lawn certified by the National Wildlife Federation as a backyard habitat. She sent letters and gave books to neighbors to explain what she was trying to do on her property.

Wozniak has dozens of bird feeders and almost as many bird baths and bird houses. There are grapevines and raspberry bushes.

Last year, she said, the township left her alone and her yard was featured in a local garden tour. But this spring, the troubles began again. And in June, Wozniak received a court summons.

Wozniak is worried about the prospect of a $1,250 fine if she's found guilty. That is about what she spends each year on the yard.

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