Sometimes it takes distance and time passed before we can look back and laugh at the situations that take place in our lives, but Tom Fleming’s run-in with the busybodies in his hometown who objected to his bushes made me laugh, because my wife and I had a similar encounter.
Here’s some background. The Village of Williamsville, about eight miles east of the Buffalo city line on the old stage coach road from Boston to Buffalo, was once a lovely little farming village settled by Connecticut Yankees after the War of 1812. After World War II, like so many other rural villages that surrounded great cities, it saw a phenomenal growth in population, but the character of the village remained relatively unchanged until the University of Buffalo built its new campus in Amherst during the Vietnam War, and the outskirts of the village— once dairy and wheat farms—were covered with shopping malls and strip plazas.
In 1986, my wife and I, with four children then, moved to Williamsville after a realtor showed us a magnificent but terribly neglected, four-square prairie-style house built of massive concrete blocks faced with granite chips. The builder, Ignatz Oechsner, was a local character who came from Germany and worked at one of the slaughterhouses on Buffalo’s east side, and the house he built for himself at the turn of the century was a manly fortress. The base of the foundation was at street level and the house’s enormous leaded-glass windows looked out over the corner of South Ellicott and Oakgrove. He surrounded the property with a barberry hedge, arborvitae, and in his own old age, two militant German Shepherds patrolled the yard, and put the fear of Ignatz in anyone who dared walk by. He demanded, and got, privacy.
When we bought the house from his estate at a bargain price, it had been empty for nearly a decade. The chimney was falling down, there were 40 broken windows, and the house was crawling with moles, mice and rats, squirrels, chipmunks, and other assorted vermin. The original large yard had been sold off years before and the remaining tiny space needed enhancement, so in late fall, we planted a hedge of forsythia, a good buy at five dollars per plant.
We understood that we lived in the upscale, coded community of Williamsville, and so before purchasing a dozen small plants, we called village public safety officials and building inspectors to ask where we could plant the hedge legally. We were told the hedge had to be at least three feet in from the sidewalk, and so we planted it six feet just to be safe.
We planted in November 1987, to commemorate our one-year anniversary in what we were starting to feel was home. Over the next few years, we continued landscaping our small corner lot, putting in perennials, flowering trees and shrubs, trying to protect our privacy while giving the neighborhood a beautiful sight to see. Since we were bordered on two sides by pedestrian walkways, we were careful to plant good ground covers to keep the walks clean and also not to add trees or bushes that would shed annoying or slippery berries, seeds, etc.
In the fall of 1988, my wife, Paulette, earned some notoriety as the spokesman for the local Project Rescue, which was engaging in some successful anti-abortion activity. Bomb-sniffing dogs had to tour the house once two days before Christmas before we were allowed in, we were receiving bushels of unrequested magazines, books, and CDs every day, and the number of threatening phone calls increased. There were sudden disruptions of our telephone service on three consecutive anniversaries of Roe v. Wade, which baffled repairmen. And then there was the mysterious termination of a credit card when we were on vacation one year.
As “rescue” activity waned and lawsuits against pro-lifers proliferated, one of the most prominent attorneys for abortion providers was a Williamsville resident, Glenn Murray, who was also a legal advisor for the village. His associate in village affairs was Tom Troy, the Village Attorney.
Troy’s daughter and son-in-law, also residents on our street, had recently sold a portion of their property to psychiatrist Rupert Brook where he built a large contemporary home with unimaginative island plantings which would be maintained by a yard service crew. Clearly, it was a structure out of character with the neighborhood and for some time the neighbors discussed how a permit could have been granted. After taking residence there. Brook usually ran the stop sign at our corner, seemingly in an angry rush on most days.
In June 1992 my wife was pulling weeds from the barberry hedge when, unbelievably, the mailman delivered a letter issued by Deborah Habes, administrator of the Village of Williamsville Building Department, stating that “a potentially hazardous situation exists at the corner of your property that fronts on South Ellicott and Oakgrove. The bushes at that corner have been allowed to grow high enough so as to impede visibility for motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians negotiating that corner. This is a violation of Section 89-7 of the Village Code, which requires that shrubs be kept to a maximum of three (3) feet when they are located within fifteen (15) feet of a street. I am enclosing a copy of the relevant code for your review. These bushes shall be trimmed to a height not exceeding three (3) feet by Wednesday June 24, 1992, or it will be necessary for the Village to take further action.”
On June 16, Paulette called Habes and said she would trim the bushes, but I was not going to comply. I called the mayor, the building inspector, the manager of the streets department, one other official, and together we took measurements which definitively established that our hedges were not in violation because they were slightly more than 19 feet from the street. Moreover, our corner was not a busy center of traffic.
One of the officials we communicated with attributed the incident to an anonymous complaint, from a person who said “he has had trouble with you before.” Not remembering any “trouble” with our neighbors, my wife trimmed the hedge in a spirit of cooperation.
Nine months later, however, we received another letter, dated March 29, 1993, from David Sutton, Village Building Inspector, informing us that “as a result of a recent change in the Village’s Vehicle and Traffic Safety Code, the bushes on the corner of your property . . . exceed the maximum height allowing within twenty (20) feet from a street line in both directions. Section 103-20 (E) (2) prohibits any obstruction to vision between three and seven feet above street level at a corner intersection. . . . On March 15, I conducted an inspection of the site as a result of a complaint to this office. I verified that these particular plantings are in violation of the section of the Code. . . . Please trim the plantings.”
Now my wife and I were both furious and fighting mad. Who, we wondered, would complain about our forsythia? When they were in bloom, many people walked by to admire them. People driving down the street stopped to look. Some even took pictures of them. We began to photograph dozens of village hedges in violation, which we planned to register with the village government. Paulette went door-to-door asking the neighbors if they felt threatened by the “killer” hedge. One did not like the hedge, saying “it looks like a jungle.” The only person my wife did not ask—because he was never home—was Rupert Brook.
After her neighborhood canvas, I walked to the Village Office and asked if the second complaint was also anonymous. It had been filed by Dr. Brook, an individual allegedly in the business of helping patients handle personal conflict. My wife left a few phone messages on the Brooks’ answering machine, but when the calls were not returned, she went directly to the Brooks’ front door to ask why the hedge was so frightening to the doctor, and further, why he would not have first discussed it with us before going to the authorities. He could not be found at home.
My wife talked to both the former and the current “tree warden” and both visited our property: both said they did not feel threatened by the forsythia. From them, we learned that a neighbor, Patrick Kelly, a member of the Village Board, had sponsored the change in the law. Paulette visited Kelly and asked why he sponsored the change. He responded, “What’s going to happen when someone gets picked off on that corner?” My wife said we had lived there with six children, plus visiting friends, that both she and I were home all the time, and there had never been so much as a dead duck (there were lots of ducks in the neighborhood) near our property.
Early in the evening of April 3, 1993, with my list of hedge violation addresses in hand, I walked to Tom Troy’s house to present the list to him. I wanted him to take immediate action, and I was prepared to tell him that after he sent me copies of letters mailed to all the violators, I would trim my hedge. His wife graciously invited me in to their home and led me into the dining room, where Troy and two guests from England were about to have dinner.
Troy introduced me to his guests: “This is Paul Likoudis. He and his wife are two of Western New York’s leading pro-life activists, and his father, James, is an ultraconservative Catholic rightwinger, the founder of Credo.” He was obviously prepared to continue, so I interrupted him: “I’m not here to talk about my background and my family, but to deliver a letter containing addresses of all properties in Williamsville that are in violation of the new village ordinance. We are concerned about the flagrant, life-threatening abuses that exist.”
Troy responded that the village could no longer be passive about violations, and that all violators would be brought into compliance. I responded that I could not understand why the village was so intent on harassing us for our hedges. He, perhaps a mite tipsy, replied: “It’s all a plot to get you, Mr. Likoudis, and your wife, out of Williamsville.”
Disregarding his inane comment, I explained that before we planted the hedge, we received the advice on where we could plant from village authorities, and in 1992, after receiving the first complaint, the mayor and three other authorities took measurements and determined the hedge was legal. “Why,” I asked, “did the village have to change the law?”
“The law was changed,” he affirmed again, “in a plot to get Paul and Paulette Likoudis out of Williamsville.” I continued the line of questioning, and each time he gave the same answer. “What is this, the People’s Republic of Williamsville?” I asked. He raised his wine glass. “Long live the People’s Republic of Williamsville.”
I then asked him to let me know when he had sent letters informing all violators of the hedge law to comply. He answered: “Haven’t you sold your house? Aren’t you moving out of Williamsville? You’re going to be causing a lot of difficulty for people on your way out,” to which I replied that it did not matter.
He insisted again that the law was changed specifically to “get Paul and Paulette Likoudis out of Williamsville.” “Is this the People’s Republic of China?” I asked. He again raised his wine glass and toasted: “Long live the People’s Republic of China.” “Tom,” his wife interjected, “you really shouldn’t say things like that.” One month later, I went to the Village Board Meeting and reported the conversation before the entire board. The majority defended Troy and the new policy, but one member asked the other board members why Paulette and I were not invited to the board meeting, since the law was rewritten specifically with us in mind. No one had an answer. Two months later, we shook the dust from our feet and moved from Williamsville.
One year later, Troy was replaced as Village Attorney. Three years later, the hedges in front of our old house are magnificent, and the new owners, apparently, are not being harassed about the forsythia.
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