Portland plans $5,000 fix at Deering Center community garden

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PORTLAND — The city’s Public Services Division will spend $5,000 to fix problems associated with a community garden in the Deering Center neighborhood.

Public Services Director Michael Bobinsky said the city will add trees to restore privacy for the garden’s neighbors. It will also change drainage patterns and maintain a swale to divert storm water from nearby homes.

The Deering Center Neighborhood Association in 2009 signed a five-year, $1-a-year lease for 2.5 acres of land next to Evergreen Cemetery to establish the Brentwood Community Garden. The garden is used by about 75 people.

But soon after the project began, neighbors claimed not to have been notified about the extent of the project, which they said involved extensive site work and clear-cutting of trees.

Tensions between DCNA and neighbors came to a head at a City Council meeting in June. Councilors directed staff to develop a plan to address the abutters’ concerns, and Bobinsky said city staff met with Hamblett Avenue residents on July 14 to hear their concerns.

As a result, Bobinsky said the city will plant a dozen trees along a property line that was cleared by the gardeners.

Bobinsky said the trees (four river birch, three white spruce, two white pines, two flowering bushes and an arbor vitae) will be between 6 and 8 feet tall to restore privacy to the homes, which sit several feet downhill from the garden.

The plantings are consistent with the Evergreen Cemetery master plan, he said.

One of the neighbors, Jean Rank, said she hopes the plan will restore the privacy she lost when the garden was built.

“The city has been really engaged in the conversation,” Rank said.

But fellow abutter John Kwoka said he is only “cautiously optimistic” the plan will be effective. The city initially let the neighbors down by allowing the group to clear-cut the lot, he said, so the success of the remedy remains to be seen.

“It’s bittersweet,” Kwoka said. “As a taxpayer, I’m appalled the city has to pay for the trees. As an abutter, I’m happy to get my privacy back.”

Kwoka and his wife sued the DCNA in 2009 over water problems allegedly caused by the garden, but a judge ruled in favor of the DCNA.

However, Bobinsky acknowledged after visiting the garden that the current conditions could not adequately handle the amount of storm-water runoff from the site.

“The level of shaping we did, I don’t think we went far enough,” he said.

The city plans to clear invasive plants from a swale and too add more contour and grading to the site, Bobinsky said. 

Meanwhile, the city is planning on convening a task force to study the issue of community gardens on a city-wide scale.

Bobinsky said the group will likely get to work in late summer or early fall and sen a report back to the City Council next year about possible community garden locations, how to manage them, costs and other issues.

The disagreement between the DCNA and the garden neighbors has not soured city staff on community gardens, Bobinsky said.

“In my opinion,” he said, “community gardens are still a viable element of our community and will grow.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings.