PORTLAND — On a recent sunny afternoon, Laura Carten was hard at work, hunched over a raised garden bed in Deering Center as the wind blew gently through the pines and the birds chirped nearby.
Carten was tending her 8-by-8-foot plot near Evergreen Cemetery, where she has planted radishes, tomatoes, beats, turnips and beans.
She is one of about 75 gardeners taking advantage of the Brentwood Farms Community Garden, which was established two years ago by the Deering Center Neighborhood Association.
But depending on who you ask, the garden is either a tranquil place that affords residents the opportunity to grow their own food and community, or it is the sources of many ills, including a loss of privacy, water problems and community friction.
The project that was intended to bring a community together is driving it apart. The conflict came to a head at a recent City Council meeting. Several residents who abut the garden said it has changed their neighborhood for the worse.
Hamblett Avenue resident Jean Rank, who moved in about two months before the garden was built, said she was surprised to wake up one morning to the sound of heavy equipment behind her house.
Rank said workers cleared the two-acre plot of land and cut down a buffer protecting her property. Crews removed dirt from the site and added layers of top soil, increasing the height of the hill on which the garden sits and changing the drainage pattern.
Now, her entire back yard is exposed.
“We had no notice this was going to happen,” Rank said. “We didn’t image how invasive the project would be.”
The DCNA in 2009 secured a five-year lease for the 2.5-acre property, which it rents for $1 a year. The garden, where plots cost $35 each, is considered a temporary use, since the cemetery may eventually need the land for burials or a mausoleum.
City attorney Gary Wood said at the June 20 meeting that the lease was not brought to the City Council for approval, since it contained a kick-out provision, allowing it to be terminated at any time.
Neighbors, meanwhile, were not informed about the project, since it only received administrative review.
Elizabeth Tarasevich, the DCNA’s community garden coordinator, said the group was cleared to start the project by submitting its concept to the city.
The group’s efforts were bolstered when Rocco Risbara, who is in the construction business, volunteered his time and materials.
Risbara is the grandson on the family that operated a farm on the property in the early 1900s, before losing the land to the city in the Great Depression, Tarasevich said.
After garden construction started, neighbors called the city to find out what was going on.
When city officials realized the extent of the project, including the removal and addition of dirt and a new grading pattern, it issued a stop-work order and required the group to submit a site plan to planning administrators, City Hall spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said.
The city then approved a minor site plan, which required the group to develop a swale and drainage for storm water.
Tarasevich said the group had to remove a top layer of dirt because the plot had been used as a virtual dumping group for snow and debris.
Tarasevich also defended the clearing of the buffer between the garden and the Hamblett Avenue homes.
“We cleared the edges per the city’s guidelines for invasive species,” she said.
Hamblett Avenue resident Ray Swenton told councilors the project forced him to spend thousands of dollars to fix water problems in his basement, which he believes were caused by the garden project.
Swenton, like others, were also upset about what they believe was a closed process for determining the use of public land.
“There’s a fairness issue,” Swenton said. “We need to have a remedy.”
Several councilors visited the site and seemed sympathetic to the neighbors’ concerns. Councilor Cheryl Leeman successfully convinced her colleagues that city staff should develop a plan by August to address those issues.
“It’s not going to be done a year from now,” Leeman said. “It’s going to be done as soon as we can get to it and get city people out there to fix what got messed up.”
But DCNA leaders point to a recent Maine District Court ruling that determined that the garden was not the cause of the water issues.
Hamblett Avenue residents John Kwoka and Anne Weigel filed a civil lawsuit against the association, alleging the DCNA intentionally worked without necessary permits and caused the water problems.
But a judge ruled the plaintiffs failed to meet the threshold of proof.
“Based on the evidence presented, the court cannot conclude that water runoff onto the plaintiff’s was more likely than not caused by the defendant’s preparation of their rented lot for use as a garden, as opposed to (a) freak force of nature in the form of extraordinarily large amounts of rainfall that occurred in June 2009,” Judge Jeffrey Moskowitz said in the Dec. 30, 2010, decision.
Weigel told the council she was concerned the DCNA has been given too much power over a city-owned parcel without an open, transparent process.
“I don’t want the (DCNA) controlling what happens behind my back fence,” she said. “It’s just the way this whole thing has gone down. Instead of building community, (the garden) has tore it apart.”
City workers are studying the problems and are expected to report back to the council at its first August meeting.
But Leeman had strong words and a suggestion for those on both side of the issue until that report is issued.
“You are all grown adults,” she said. “I can’t believe we’re actually here in the City Council chambers with neighbors pitted against neighbors over issues if you all sat down could be resolved. It could be resolved very easily.”
But it’s not clear that will happen anytime soon.
Bob Ross, who serves on the DCNA garden committee, he doesn’t think the group will be able to convince the concerned neighbors that the garden is not a problem. He hopes the city’s report back to the council will support their position.
“I think the city will see we met every requirement and we acted in good faith,” Ross said. “And we will move forward.”
Rank said she has tried to work with the neighborhood association, but to no avail. But she said she still hopes to mend fences with her neighbors.
“I only want to be a good neighbor,” Rank said. “The tearing apart of the neighborhood is the most unfortunate part. It will take a lot more time to repair.”
Elizabeth Tarasevich, center, Deering Center Neighborhood Association community garden coordinator, is flanked by Bob Rossi, a member of the DCNA garden committee, and gardener Deirdre McClure at Brentwood Farms, next to the Evergreen Cemetery in Portland.