I decided to post the letter I wrote to the town’s officials. Here it is:
April 6, 2007
Re: Property located at
Vandergrift, PA 15690
Dear Respected Vandergrift Officials:
I am writing in response to a letter I recently received from Code Enforcement Officer, Melissa A. Holmes. In her letter, she informed me that the property I inhabit, located at ——- Avenue, Vandergrift, PA, is in violation of an International Property Maintenance Code/2003. I was also given 15 days “to remedy the situation.”
The code in question is 302.1 Sanitation. It states:
All exterior property and premises shall be maintained in a clean, safe and sanitary condition. The occupant shall keep that part of the exterior property which such occupant occupies or controls in a clean and sanitary condition.
The offenses sited against this code are two bags and a pile of leaves I’ve kept in the front yard. I was instructed to place these items in the alley for trash removal. If I considered the leaves trash, I would have situated them for trash removal when I raked them. I do not consider them trash and have therefore let them remain where they are.
Also, Ms. Holmes informed me that I “have the right to appeal to the Borough of Vandergrift Appeals Board,” but in order to do this I “must complete the requisite forms and pay the Borough a fee for the appeal.” Filling out forms is fine if it means someone will listen and take me seriously. Paying a fee to have someone listen is altogether something different. Ms. Holmes’s letter named my ability to appeal a “right.” A right is something I’m due. Not something for which I write a check.
I dislike the posturing of this notice that basically gives me, the citizen, only three choices for action, none of which are satisfactory to me, and all of which benefit the borough or are at least in the borough’s favor. The way I see it, according to this letter, Option 1 is to concede that the leaves are indeed a hazard and “remedy the situation,” by which Ms. Holmes means to dispose of the leaves within 15 days or face prosecution for the violation. Option 2 (from a common understanding of the way this borough works) is to leave the leaves, be prosecuted for violation, let the borough dispose of the leaves and then pay them for their trouble. Option 3 is to appeal, but to do so, I have to again relieve my wallet of some of its load. None of these work for me. It seems that it’s your way or no way, but I am unwilling to pay for my right to disagree.
If people are expected to abide by the borough codes and ordinances, where are these mystical documents? I’ve never been privy to any written information about how one behaves and lives in this neighborhood, and I’ve lived here for 13 years. It’s unreasonable to have expectations of citizens without disclosing the expectations and then to penalize said citizens for failure to meet the expectation. It is flat out wrong to require me to bend to your wishes, pay for your wishes to be carried out by someone else, or pay for the right of having my voice and opinion considered. There are always two sides to a situation and according to the language in the letter from Ms. Holmes, her side of the situation is the right one because either I do what her letter says, or I pay. No matter which of the other options I select, they both come with a price tag.
Based on the language in that code, I’d venture to say that what we have here is merely differing interpretations of what constitutes “clean, safe and sanitary” conditions. The code included is not explicit in what is considered “clean, safe and sanitary.” As a result, I’m unconvinced of how we can then agree on its opposite – what is unclean, unsafe, or unsanitary. Ergo, upon what basis have my leaves been deemed not “clean, safe and sanitary?” I’m sure we can all agree on the intent of the code which is to keep a wholesome and respectable neighborhood for everyone. I think the dissonance occurs in that while Ms. Holmes seems to harbor undue fear and disgust of leaves, I do not. In fact, I consider them basically harmless and usually helpful.
Throughout the winter I used them for covering my flower bulbs and for packing around the base of new trees I planted last year. Through the summer I use them like a mulch to keep moisture in the ground next to my plants and to discourage weed growth. By these methods I avoid over-watering, the use of harmful weed-killers, and the cost of purchasing new mulch every season. It’s better for me; it’s better for my plants; it’s safer for my kids; and it’s beneficial to my little plot of the environment.
I’m not sure what other people keep in their leaves, but I simply keep leaves there, and maybe a stray twig or two. I have a hard time understanding what is unclean, unsafe, or unsanitary about that.
I have to say that compared to all the “clean, safe and sanitary conditions” I’ve seen ignored in Vandergrift on public and private properties, my innocuous collection of leaves hardly makes the list of things that should receive the attention and focus of a Code Enforcement Officer.
For example, our public playgrounds are disgusting, completely unusable, and a major tax-suck. Between the barren swing-set frames and the bumblebee infested tire swing and the rusty nails sticking up from broken and splintered wooden planks on the bouncy fire truck and car, I can’t even consider bringing my kids to play there. The sandbox has become a litter box to all the neighborhood stray cats; I’ve found used condoms and hypodermic needles just laying in the grass ; there are cigarette butts everywhere, and we’re lucky if the grass is mowed more than twice a month (and that’s just too infrequent when you’re 3 years old and the grass is higher than your pull-up).
Those are just the unclean, unsafe, and unsanitary conditions, to say nothing of the merely discomfort related conditions. There are no benches or shaded areas for parents; the water fountain hasn’t worked in more than 10 years; there are no bathrooms – not even a port-a-potty. How can you herd a gaggle of potty-training toddlers and yardapes to a park and not have to pee during the trip? Several times.
Additionally, I’d like to point out that this town has a serious litter problem. Several times a week – if not everyday – I have to clean up my yard from people walking by and depositing their trash on my property. Or the wind blows the trash into my yard from wherever it’s been last left. Either way, take a walk and see for yourself. My small compost pile is less of a factor in terms of public hazards than all the litter and trash on our streets and grassy areas.
Personally, I think someone should applaud my tiny efforts rather than slap me on the wrist for a perceived violation. It’s insulting to expect me to do away with something that is hurting no one and likely helping – in some small way – everyone. It’s insulting to be the target of a nit-picker for inconsequential minutiae when there are far worse things in this town that necessitate scrutiny. I encourage this borough to clean up and maintain its own backyard of public parks and playgrounds before criticizing and discouraging a citizen’s attempt at eco-savvy practices.
In conclusion and on principle I am, consequently, “disinclined to acquiesce to your request” (Captain Barbossa). In other words, I don’t want to move my pile or my bags of leaves. I have plans for them and I like them where they are.
Thank you for your concern and your attention in this matter.
Chastity M. West
I decided to post the letter I wrote to the town’s officials. Here it is: