Elaine Scattergood sees an “environmental attraction.” The borough of Avalon sees “overgrowth.”
The center of the conflict — vines, Virginia creepers to be exact, which have thrived on Scattergood’s beach block property for 40 years.
The town wants them gone. Scattergood asks why, after decades of being allowed to cultivate the vines, all the fuss?
The dispute, first reported by the Press of Atlantic City, will be back in municipal court July 15, after several meetings between and court appearances by Scattergood and the borough, which have failed to force her hand.
“The only thing that interests them that’s green is money,” said Scattergood, who contends that the borough’s only interest is maintaining its image as an upscale Shore destination.
On Jan. 2, an Avalon code enforcement officer cited Scattergood for “failure to remove overgrowth vegetation” from her home, which she purchased from her parents’ estate.
The vines in question are a five-leaf ivy native to eastern and central North America. Parthenocissus quinquefolia produce berries that provide a crucial food source for birds in the winter.
“They’ve done very well lately,” Scattergood said proudly. “The reason for them, and the reason I’m stubbornly insisting on keeping them is that, first of all, they’re beautiful. … Secondly, [the leaves] turn crimson in the fall, then the leaves fall off and berries are there that the migrating birds enjoy. Many, many different species of birds feast on these. It’s an environmental attraction.”
Scattergood’s lawyer, Joseph C Grassi, has filed a motion to dismiss the case, saying the citation is too vague. Paul Short, a borough code enforcement official, wrote that Scattergood had violated local ordinance 16-1, a set of standards adopted from the International Property Maintenance Code. Grassi contends that the citation failed to say which rule his client had broken. He said his “educated guess” was that Scattergood was found in violation of a stipulation that weeds and other plant growth cannot surpass nine inches in height.
Scott Wahl, Avalon’s business administrator, said Scattergood was also cited for violating a sanitation code, requiring that all exterior property be maintained in a clean and safe fashion.
Grassi is quick to point out that the vine itself is not prohibited. If the court does not dismiss the case, the legal dispute will proceed and environmental questions — such as what constitutes a weed — could become central in court.
Scattergood maintains that the borough’s rejection of her creepers stems not from the vines but from an effort to “boss" her around. She contends that borough code enforcement officials zeroed in on her home because of her role as an environmentalist.
“To me,” Scattergood said, “it seemed to be a civil rights issue as much as an environmental issue.”
Her activism in Avalon extends for more than a decade. She founded Save Avalon’s Dunes to protest the construction of a proposed five-story home in the borough’s dune area. Despite efforts to halt the development, construction began in March 2006 for a home for Michael Rice, the chief executive of Utz Quality Foods, and his wife, Jane. In 2016, Scattergood told the media she planned to chain herself to three Japanese pines on the beach to preserve the borough’s wildlife. In the end, she was too late because the trees were already being chopped.
Scattergood said her most recent problems are the result of the Avalon’s catering to the summer Shore crowd. Her home, covered with dense foliage, contrasts with those of her neighbors: pristine and typically occupied by seasonal visitors in the summer months. Scattergood recalls Avalon’s earlier image as a refuge for fishing and swimming.
Although the borough has a number of environmental initiatives, including the recent allocation of $15,000 to create a butterfly garden, Avalon’s residential real estate market has changed. Homes there sell for an average of $1.4 million, according to a 2018 report published by the New Jersey Department of Taxation.
The borough acknowledges the resort nature of the community as the “principal challenge” it faces, according to a Community Forestry Management Plan published in 2015.
To Scattergood, her house represents the Avalon of the past. But to some Avalon residents, it is an out-of-place dwelling.
Short, the code enforcement official, says he has received numerous complaints about her property. Since 2003, he estimates, Scattergood has resolved four or five violations. In 2015, her property made national headlines with the tale of a noise complaint against Scattergood and her birds. The case landed in court, where a judge ruled that if she and her birds were complaint-free for 90 days, the pets could stay. The Amazon Parrots — Edmund and Arthur — remain.
While Scattergood contends that she has been unfairly targeted, Short said the January citation was the result of complaints from other residents. Scattergood’s citation is similar to one brought against another property, Short said. And several properties have been cited for overgrowth of weeds and grass in recent years.
“We do not target anybody,” Short said. “If you are in violation of an ordinance, you are issued a violations report and given time to abate, no matter who it is. Every property owner is treated exactly the same, no matter what the case is, no matter what the violation is.”
He added that he could not explain why she had not been cited before this year for the overgrowth, but noted that it has recently been “egregious enough to catch my eye.”
Matt Heist, 20, a summer neighbor of Scattergood’s, said that although the property did not necessarily bother him, he has long heard complaints about its being overgrown.
One neighbor called it a perpetual mess.
Scattergood’s case comes at a crucial moment for New Jersey ecology enthusiasts. A recent bill proposed in the state Assembly seeks requirements for the Department of Environmental Protection to establish a “private wildlife habitat certification program." According to Eric Stiles, president and CEO of the New Jersey Audubon Society, the bill would allow homeowners a role in combating environmental crises and threats to plant and animal species.
Although Stiles said he could not speak to Scattergood’s property, he said the case highlights the need for transparency and standards for landowners and municipalities.