Stripping groundcover of poison ivy proves costly

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

To John and Maria Mello of Lynn, Mass., stripping all the plants in front of their Long Lake home in Bridgton was “an innocent mistake,” caused by the torment his wife had endured from the poison ivy hidden among the ferns.

To the Bridgton Board of Selectmen, it was a serious violation of the town’s Shoreland Zoning law. The only issue was — how high a price they should pay?

In the end, the board, at their Nov. 23 meeting, settled on a $7,500 fine, the amount initially recommended by Code Enforcement Officer Robbie Baker. But a fine of twice that amount was considered, and the board spent quite some time researching past fines and debating whether the issue of guilt or innocence on the part of the Mellos should play any role at all.

The Mello’s attorney, Michael Friedman, told the board that his clients didn’t think they were breaking the law when they brought in a local landscaping contractor this fall to remove all of the ferns, shrubs and groundcover along their frontage within 100 feet of Long Lake. Friedman said the contractor told them there wasn’t an issue as long as they weren’t removing any trees.

Maria Mello told the board she is extremely allergic to poison ivy, and more than once while at their shorefront home, her reaction has been serious enough to send her to the emergency room. The problem had been getting steadily worse over the past five or six years since they purchased the summer home, located at 55 Barrington Drive.

“We were told we couldn’t spray chemicals,” so that option was not possible, she said. Late this summer, her patience wore out. “I told them, ‘Get rid of it’,” she said.

Selectman Chairman Paul Hoyt, however, countered that “most people would say if you’re going down with a front-end loader to within five feet of the lakefront, we maybe should ask someone about it.”

A person on a boat on the lake saw the results after the vegetation was removed, and called Baker. Friedman said it is to his client’s credit that they “immediately took action to guard against soil erosion by placing hay bales in front of the lake the very same day after receiving the Stop Work Order.”

Colin Holme of Lake Environmental Association was called in to assess the damage and draft a remediation plan. The couple hired Cabins to Castles, a respected Denmark company, to carry out the plan, at a cost of $14,000. In his report, Holme said the ferns, shrubs and groundcover are hardly of no consequence or importance. They “absorb stormwater and nutrients and provide critical habitat for wildlife along the lake’s edge.”

Hoyt said the $14,000 remediation plan could be seen as a landscaping plan that the couple would have done anyway, so should not be considered as part of the fine, even though it was required under the consent order signed by the board. “I’m more inclined to look at a higher number” than the $7,500 Baker suggested. Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz had suggested a fine of $14,500.

Selectman Woody Woodward said the Mello case is far from being the most “egregious” case of breaking Shoreland Zoning laws he’s seen in his 12 years on the board. However, he added, “I think everyone needs to know that there is a price” to pay if the laws aren’t followed. He was among the majority on the board who recommended the minimum fine as outlined by Baker.

Woodward said it was not as if the couple were trying to “play the system,” or knowingly turn a blind eye to the law in an attempt to increase the value of their property by creating a better view. As Friedman had pointed out, “It’s the same view, it’s just less ferns and less poison ivy.”

The board agreed that the criteria that the town should be using is not to “make an example” of people who violate Shoreland Zoning laws but to make sure that people are aware of the law.

The Mellos agreed to pay the fine by the end of this year. They had already completed the replanting of 150 shrubs and four trees as outlined in the remediation plan.

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