Gardener, Aston Township at odds over drainage

Anthony Bellosi's raised-bed garden in Aston has been netting him produce and some hefty fines.
Anthony Bellosi's raised-bed garden in Aston has been netting him produce and some hefty fines. (Ryan S. Greenberg / Staff)
Posted: October 09, 2012

By summer's end, the lovingly tended garden in Anthony Bellosi's backyard had yielded hundreds of pounds of tomatoes, peppers, carrots, and beans; dozens of bushels of Brussels sprouts, Mexican sour gherkins, kale, and corn; $6,000 in township fines; an Oct. 9 court date, and a ton of aggravation.

It was not exactly the harvest he had hoped for.

A glum Bellosi recently surveyed his half-acre in Aston Township, Delaware County - the 20 raised beds he built over the last three years, the apple, plum, pear, and fig trees he planted - and braced for the worst.

"I think the garden," he said, "is going to disappear."

Even before the last frost of spring, the 32-year-old steamfitter found himself in an escalating feud with an assortment of township officials over complaints that his elaborate grid of cinder-block-boxed beds impeded stormwater flow into a neighborhood drainage system.

An Aston commissioner lives behind his property, the commissioner's son to one side. They are, in Bellosi's estimation, his chief adversaries. The commissioner says they aren't.

And the source of the friction? Not vegetables, Bellosi says, but chickens - rather, the threat of chickens. That, too, is in dispute.

So, in the search for clarity in this dustup, let's examine the seeds of animus, planted several seasons ago in a Beaver Cleaver neighborhood of split-levels and perfect lawns.

It was in 2007 that the township installed a $200,000 stormwater-management system in backyards of homes on Anvil Road, long prone to flooding. A swale toward the back of the Bellosi property - owned then and still by Anthony's mother, Sandy - was the low point in the neighborhood, and thus got two sizable drains to suck up runoff from all around.

The story might have ended before it began were it not for a car accident that temporarily sidelined Bellosi. Overweight and out of shape, he decided to improve his diet and his health.

"I figured starting my own organic garden would be the best way to do that," he said.

Beginning in 2009, he built a couple of beds, then just kept adding. They were as small as four-by-six feet, and as big as three-by-16, with 20-inch-wide mulch paths between. He steered clear of the drains and, he said, made sure the beds wouldn't obstruct water flow to them.

Bellosi sank $5,000 into his garden and fruit trees, but they have rewarded him with $1,400 in organic produce each year, he figures.

What's more, the fresh food and hard labor transformed him. He dropped 85 pounds. His 55-year-old mother lost 50, and no longer needs insulin for her diabetes.

But then came summer 2011, and the first squawks of discord could be heard around the peaceable kingdom.

Bellosi passed a petition to neighbors asking whether they would favor allowing Aston residents to keep egg-laying hens. The practice is prohibited by the township, but permitted in an array of other communities, including Media, Middletown, Rose Valley, and Chester Heights.

Linda Barry, master gardener coordinator with Penn State Extension, said many forward-thinking towns are flocking to the trend.

Hens eat harmful insects such as ticks, provide great manure, and, if they are free-range, lay eggs of higher nutrient value, she said. "As long as they don't have a rooster, they are not considered a problem."

Of 45 homeowners Bellosi surveyed, he said, 38 told him the ban should be repealed.

One neighbor who did not was Commissioner Gary Robinson.

In a letter of complaint to the township, Bellosi alleged that Robinson angrily confronted him about the petition, in front of a house guest, and asked, "What is this I hear about chickens?" The commissioner, Bellosi wrote, also asked whether he thought he lived on a farm, and said he opposed his hen campaign.

Ultimately, the township declined to amend its ban.

In that episode, Bellosi says, are the roots of his current garden war.

Robinson, who did not cast a vote on the bird ordinance, begs to differ. The trouble now "isn't about chickens," the commissioner said in a brief interview. "This is about him being told to remove or move the planters."

That began happening early this year, brought on by Bellosi himself. In January, he complained to the township of ponding around the drains in his yard. A code enforcement officer checked it out and advised him to move "a portion of the closest planter box, at minimum."

Bellosi did better. He removed some of the beds, trucked in leaf mulch to raise the swale, regraded the yard, then built new boxes.

"We are on a slope," he said, adding that the beds are lower than neighbors' fence lines. "If anyone is having water problems, it would be us."

However, township officials said complaints were coming from the neighborhood that the garden, as Robinson described it, "doesn't allow water to drain from property to property."

They told Bellosi to move the planters. And told him, and told him, and told him.

In mid-September, the "maintenance of facilities" citations started to arrive. He and his mother have gotten nine, at $669 a pop; under township policy, they will continue to be issued until the matter is resolved.

Township Manager Richard Lehr, Administrative Assistant George Needles, and Code Enforcement Officer Ralph Maiden did not return calls for comment. Aston Commissioner Michael Fulginiti did. He is trying to sort out the facts, he said, and "find out what the right thing is and get it corrected."

Bellosi is to appear before District Court Judge Diane M. Holefelder on Tuesday, when he intends to plead not guilty.

This weekend, though, he is removing some boxed beds.

Robinson has planted Leyland cypress and arborvitae along his property line with Bellosi; so has the commissioner's son, Chris, who did not return calls for comment. Eventually, the fast-growing trees will shadow much of the garden, Bellosi said.

But he expresses no regret over his labors.

Gardening is "an important part of life that most people don't get to experience these days," he said. What with work, technology, and sports, they are too busy to "spend time with nature, and doing what people did for thousands of years."  


Contact Mari A. Schaefer at 610-892-9149, mschaefer@phillynews.com, or follow @MariSchaefer on Twitter.

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