AVALON, N.J. — A woman who ended up in court over the leafy vines covering the walls of her beach-block home does not have to cut them down, a judge ruled Monday.
In a brief hearing, Municipal Court Judge Andrew Cafiero dismissed the borough’s complaint against Elaine Scattergood for violating a town ordinance on overgrowth. His decision, which followed a daylong hearing in January, concluded that officials failed to follow the procedures required after they issued the citations, such as following up with recommendations.
The ruling brought an end to a dispute that lasted more than a year and grew to represent more than a single homeowner’s stand. Scattergood has been cultivating Virginia creeper vines on her 30th Street property for decades, as Avalon morphed into an exclusive community with multimillion-dollar homes.
Scattergood saw the borough’s claims of safety concerns — a local prosecutor had argued that Scattergood’s vines posed a fire hazard and could undermine the stability of her house — as a pretext, and said town officials care only about making sure Avalon’s properties look pristine. She also believed her history as an outspoken environmental activist made her a target.
“I feel vindicated,” she said after the decision.
Scattergood’s lawyer, Joseph Grassi, said that, after citing her, the borough never told her how she could bring her home into compliance.
“You’re not required to guess what a violation is,” he said. “If they want to bring complaints, they’re going to have to spell out what’s wrong and give us a chance to fix it.”
Cafiero noted, however, that none of the witnesses who testified in January said the vines should be allowed to grow unchecked. Scattergood acknowledged that left the door open for borough officials to pursue future cases against her vegetation.
Municipal prosecutor Frank Guaracini III could not be reached for comment.
Native to eastern and central North America, the vines grow berries that feed birds as they migrate south for the winter. Scattergood says her vines provide nourishment for wildlife that has become more scarce as Avalon has been transformed from a laid-back beach town into a posh Shore community where front yards are often landscaped with stones, not plants.
Guaracini argued in January that Scattergood’s vines violate an ordinance requiring that properties be maintained in a “clean, safe, and sanitary condition.” The town code calls for vines to be trimmed to less than nine inches in length, and he said the plants have begun dislodging the house’s siding and twisting around electrical wires.
In addition to arguing that officials did not follow proper protocol in citing her, Grassi contended that Scattergood had been singled out because her home was cited while vines on other Avalon homes were allowed to remain.
Town officials have said that multiple residents complained about Scattergood’s property and that hers was one of several cited for having overgrown weeds and grass.
Asked on Monday whether she would consider voluntarily trimming the vines this summer as a compromise, Scattergood considered it for a moment.
“Well … no," she said. Then, she added, “Vines can’t be unclean, and unsanitary, and unsafe. They’re just the opposite.”