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St. Petersburg man fights to keep his little Eden

ST. PETERSBURG — Last November, Ken Conklin sat in a Pinellas County courtroom in his Sperry deck shoes and tried to ignore the men with sallow cheeks who, based on the charges against them, slept in parks, smoked pot and drank lots of beer.

For the second time in a year, Conklin, 41-year-old computer guy and nature lover, had been called to account over the condition of his front yard. The record so far was Code Enforcement 1, Ken Conklin 0. But he was unbowed.

When Conklin's name and case were called ("overgrowth" is how the clerk announced it), he stepped forward.

"Not guilty," he said. A trial date was set for mid December.

Yards go to hell in Florida for lots of reasons. People don't care or they're underwater on the mortgage and they've got bigger things to worry about than making things pretty for the neighbors. There aren't too many homeowners like Ken Conklin who can stand in the middle of some knee-high dog fennel and tell you with real emotion that it's against his spiritual beliefs to cut the grass.

In the eternal battle between city hall and property owners, between conformity and individual liberty, Conklin was invoking a novel defense. Call it the "Garden of Eden" theory.

• • •

You could say this all started with Myrtle the Turtle. Myrtle was a red-eared slider famous in certain parts of south St. Petersburg for her ability to come when called. She was the first of nearly 30 turtles Conklin kept in a backyard pond.

In 2009, city code inspectors took issue with the pond and the shade structure he built for his turtles. They forced Conklin to make the structure hurricane-resistant.

But as his turtle menagerie grew, Conklin began letting his grass go so he'd have hay to feed his herbivores. Then one day last year, someone complained. Conklin thinks it was the neighbor two doors down with the neatly trimmed bougainvillea.

"I don't believe in controlling nature," Conklin said. Gazing upon his tiny square of a front yard, he saw an urban prairie — a bustling habitat for dragonflies, bees and snakes — that resembled the landscape of his childhood.

Why, he asked, did he have to conform to society's notions of beauty? Why did his yard have to be sheared and sculpted like a prize-winning poodle?

Because we'll take you to court if you don't cut your grass below 10 inches, said the code inspector who showed up at Conklin's home last year. That's why.

"It's for health," said Gary Bush, director of codes compliance. "It draws rodents and snakes. This is more than just for aesthetic value. It affects the neighbors. It affects property values."

In September, Conklin went to trial. Preparing his opening statement at home, he wrote this: "The city wants me to be like them and not allow me to be me."

The city got what it wanted. Sort of.

• • •

Kim Conklin understands her husband has his passions. But when it came to the clash over the grass, she wavered between understanding and practicality.

"On the one hand, just cut the grass," she said. "On the other hand, he's got a point. But it's like, pick your battles."

Once found guilty of overgrowth, Conklin wouldn't pay the fine. To make sure he didn't lose his driver's license, Kim Conklin went to the courthouse and paid the $152 fine.

By this time, they were taking care of her elderly grandmother who lived a mile or so away. Conklin decided to build a new pond and transported Myrtle and the others to her back yard.

The turtles were gone. He and his wife were gone. But Conklin still wouldn't cut the grass.

This resulted in another visit from Code Enforcement and another white stake in the heart of his urban prairie.

• • •

In late November, not long after he had pleaded not guilty, Conklin stepped into his front yard. It was hot and sunny and some of the weeds were now waist-high.

It was hard to see the beauty in the scraggly, dead tufts.

Conklin pulled one of the dog fennel plants toward him, pointed out all the dark brown seed pods at the end.

"This is one of the most beneficial plants in a Florida field," he said. "It puts nitrogen into the ground."

His blue eyes lit up as he discovered a pair of tiny caterpillar cocoons.

"If this plant wasn't allowed, they wouldn't be here," he said. "They wouldn't live."

Then he pointed out to a visitor cuckoo bees, mining bees, a dragonfly, a ladybug, a spider.

"Oh, there's my beetle," he said. "Hello there, Mr. Bug."

He looked around wistfully. He had decided he would have to cut this. Not now. But before the trial. He was tired of fighting. But it made him sad. Very sad.

"My biggest thing is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder," he said, "so if someone wants to call this ugly, that's fine. But it's teeming with life."

• • •

Back in court Dec. 15, Conklin waited for the judge to weed through other cases. He faced up to a $500 fine and 60 days in jail.

"He did mow the front yard," code investigator Thomas Holthusen told the judge when they got to Conklin's case, " … but now the rear yard has to be cut."

He had photos. The dog fennel was chest-high.

Conklin stood up. The city, he said, had told him in September he'd have 90 days to register his yard as "Florida-friendly." But the city, in its eagerness, had filed the second violation within days of the first trial. Where did his 90-day extension go?

The judge nodded. He found Conklin not guilty.

Conklin held his chin high as he exited the courtroom.

• • •

Back at his property, Conklin surveyed his now-flat lawn. New growth — green and vibrant — poked up from the brown fringe. But the butterflies, the bees, the ladybugs, the beetles were gone.

He shook his head. He'd gotten his neighbor to cut it. "I didn't want to be part of this," he said.

He decided he wasn't going to cut the offending dog fennel at the back. The city had parks with 7-foot dog fennel. Why were they allowed to grow it and he wasn't?

"My thought process is to protect what's left," he said.

Days later, code enforcement prepared another violation and sent it to the legal department, which decided not to pursue it.

Meanwhile, the dog fennel in the front is ankle-high.

Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at lapeter@tampabay.com or (727)893-8640.

St. Petersburg man fights to keep his little Eden 03/03/13 [Last modified: Monday, March 4, 2013 7:50am]
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