DUNEDIN - Alice Earle, the woman who says she is trying to create a wildlife habitat in her back yard, may have to get out the lawn mower. The City Commission on Thursday denied her appeal for an exemption to the city's lawn-mowing ordinance, which requires that grass be no more than 12 inches high.
But at the same meeting, City Commissioners Mary Melton and Manuel Koutsourais questioned whether an easement agreement the city has with Mrs. Earle didn't entitle her to be left alone.
Mrs. Earle calls her tangle of shrubs and growth a natural habitat.
Neighbors have called it a weed garden and worse.
"Those are not weeds," said James Helinger, the attorney who represented Mrs. Earle. "These are natural vegetation people went out and spent money for because they believe in something."
Helinger said he believed the city's mowing ordinance was vague and probably unconstitutional.
"They're trying to create a natural habitat when everywhere else in Pinellas County is being paved," he said. "They are trying to save things."
Bill Jennings, an attorney for neighbors Clara Honold and Josephine Cole, said the habitats not only bring egrets and geese, but snakes and rats.
Neighbors signed a petition last September against growth around "Earle Lake" that they said caused flooding.
The complaints flared again when Ms. Earle put up a 6-foot-high fence abutting the property of Honold and Cole recently.
Despite Thursday's ruling, the issue is likely not dead because of differing interpretations of the city's easement on Mrs. Earle's property.
The easement agreement, drafted in 1984 so that the lake could be used as a retention area, states that the city will "cause as little damage to the easement area while using it for the purposes intended."
City Attorney John Hubbard said the easement agreement applied only to the city's maintenance of the property. He said the ordinance did not excuse Mrs. Earle from complying with the city's rules.
Koutsourais said Friday that he still was unsure that the agreement was as Hubbard interpreted.
"I think we may owe Mrs. Earle something under this agreement," Koutsourais said. "We may have to leave her alone."
Melton agreed: "I think this thing has been handled poorly from the beginning."
Melton said she hoped the city would continue to investigate the feasibility of a natural habitat zone district. The City Commission directed staff to look into the issue in October.