AVALON — Long vines have covered the sides of Elaine Scattergood’s home for 40 years.
It’s called Virginia creeper, a plant that may look dead and barren in the winter, but which comes alive when warm weather rolls around. By autumn, the leaves turn a vibrant crimson before purple berries begin growing in their place for birds to eat.
“They’re gorgeous,” Scattergood said. “The birds fly in and enjoy replenishing their strength on their migratory path.”
But now, the borough wants her creeper cut, spurring a discussion towns at times face about when local officials should and shouldn’t regulate wildlife habitat in private yards.
In January, the borough sent Scattergood a summons for “failure to remove overgrown growth vegetation from (her) house,” according to the complaint.
“These were cited due to overgrowth out front and growing up all the sides of the dwelling into the eves and not being maintained,” said Avalon Business Administrator Scott Wahl.
Scattergood, a nature lover, has been fighting what she considers an attempt to destroy critical bird habitat and take away her home’s character.
Most properties on her street have traded in grassy lawns for gravel and stone, and state Department of Environmental Protection data show 81 percent of the borough is paved.
She pleaded not guilty to the charge this week and will go to trial in municipal court in May.
“How much can you be pushed?” Scattergood asked Wednesday outside her 30th Street home.
Virginia creeper, also known as Parthenocissus quinquefolia, does not appear on the borough’s 2016 list of banned “invasive and nuisance plants.” Flowers that grow on the leaves are pollinated by bees, and its berries are essential for birds during their migration south in the fall.
But the borough contends that Scattergood’s creeper, which runs along her wooden porch and siding, is overgrown.
Code enforcement says all plants, grasses and vegetation on her lawn must be trimmed below nine inches in length. They first cited her in August.
There are benefits to allowing homeowners to responsibly manage their yards for wildlife, said Eric Stiles, president and CEO of New Jersey Audubon. The organization has supported an Assembly bill that would protect residents who landscape with critters in mind from frivolous lawsuits and fines.
A few years ago, Stiles said, Upper Township took nuisance action against an Audubon employee who was managing a meadow for wildlife on his property.
Research shows urban neighborhoods with street trees see greater property values than those that are paved over, and having access to green spaces can reduce symptoms of depression. He said all are reasons to let plants and flowers grow, but it’s a delicate balancing act.
Homeowners, he said, should follow proper standards and avoid letting their yards get “out of control.”
“If a person stopped mowing their yard and let everything go ... I wouldn’t want to live next to that either,” Stiles said. “What people do on their yards matters, though.”
Scattergood’s home stands out amid a row of neatly manicured lawns and gravel driveways.
Driving down the street, her home is a blip of green. A sign staked into her lawn declares it a “pollinator habitat,” meaning everything growing there is pesticide-free to provide habitat for bees and birds. And she makes sure to take care of her yard, she says.
“Virginia creeper is easy to maintain,” she said. “It does spread, but you find some in the hedge and just pull it out. ... It’s really beautiful.”