Residents clash over length of park grass

June 11, 1994|By Timothy B. Wheeler and JoAnna Daemmrich | Timothy B. Wheeler and JoAnna Daemmrich,Sun Staff Writers

Back to nature. Them's fighting words in Northeast Baltimore, where some parkland is wilder than Don King's hair.

That's no joke: Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who favors neatness, has likened the overgrown look to the boxing promoter's hyped hairstyle.

For the past four years, some residents have let the grass grow along the nearly lifeless streams that wind through their neighborhoods.

People even planted trees, wildflowers and a rosebush or two -- hoping this would help stop erosion and filter out pollution.

City Hall officially embraces the idea. But the road back to nature is abumpy one.

Barbara Merrill, who lives across the street from Chinquapin Run Park, is fed up with the shag. "If I wanted to look at a field of grass, I would move to Howard County," she said. "I want a mown meadow."

Ms. Merrill complained to an ally of the mayor, himself no fan of what he calls the "Don King" look for city parkland.

This week, a crew from the Department of Public Works mowed a three-block stretch of thigh-high grass along Chinquapin Run, a concrete-encased stream that flows south across Northern Parkway and into Herring Run near Morgan State University.

The close shave angered environmental activists, who say it hurts their efforts to restore Herring Run, which is so severely degraded it hasn't seen a herring in decades.

"They literally skinned it to the bare ground in some spots," said Eugene A. Pometto, vice president of the Herring Run Watershed Association.

The incident also has triggered a turf battle between the city's parks and public works departments, with each claiming domain over Chinquapin Run Park.

A crew from public works even tried to spray the park with herbicides, Mr. Pometto said, but backed off when confronted by city parks workers.

Calvin Buikema, the city's parks chief, was taken aback by the cutting that destroyed four years of work to create a more natural buffer.

"They had planted some wild roses in there and wildflowers. They're all gone," Mr. Buikema said. "I don't know why they [mowed] it. I was pretty upset."

"We all know the mayor loves lawns," said Lynn Kramer, presidentof the Herring Run watershed group. "He likes the manicured look, but that's not going to help bring back the water quality."

Mr. Schmoke has acknowledged in the past that he's not exactly wild about high grass, but through his spokesman he disclaimed any knowledge of the mowing.

George Balog, city public works director, said his staff whacked the weeds because "we had received some complaints about rodents" living in the tall grass.

"We get a call about rodents coming from an area, especially at night, and children playing there -- we're going to do something about it," he said. "You want to wait for a child to get bitten by a rat?"

Environmentalists point to a possible political plot against the natural look.

They note that Barbara Green is the mayor's ally who relayed Ms. Merrill's complaints about rats.

Ms. Green, a member of the zoning appeals board, is helping organize the annual summer picnic of the 4344 Democratic Club in the park, between Northwood Drive and Chinquapin Parkway.

Moreover, gubernatorial candidate Parris N. Glendening, the three-term Prince George's County executive who has the backing of Mr. Schmoke, will be one of the guests at the picnic.

However, Ms. Green denied any connection between the outing and the mowing.

"We are not even near the stream," she said. "The picnic has nothing to do with the request from the homeowners. Now I wish I had not even been a part. I was really just trying to help."

But Ms. Merrill, of the 5900 block of Northwood Drive, makes no apologies for wanting to give Mother Nature a trim.

For 25 years, Ms. Merrill said, she and her husband, Sherman, have cleaned up the steep embankment and parkland across the stream. They enjoyed walking in a meadow that always was cut until four years ago -- when the city embraced the natural look.

Now, she said, the park and stream are a mess; the park is scraggly and harbors rats; and the stream is fouled by trash.

The other day, said Ms. Merrill, her husband removed a pile of junk that included a rug and a bicycle frame. So-called environmental activists "never do a bloody thing," she said.

And the city didn't cut far enough, Ms. Merrill said. The steep bank in front of her house forced work crews to leave plenty of wildness there.

"We are looking at a field of weeds," she said.

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