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The first letter was dated February 21 and addressed to a "Fellow Notting-ham Forest Homeowner." It looked innocent enough:
"I'm sure you've been too busy to notice, but some of your neighbors have mentioned to us that your landscaping is not maintained in a neat and orderly fashion, and we agree. We are confident that you will take appropriate action to resolve this issue as soon as possible. Thank you for your time and effort.
Nottingham Forest Civic Association Inc."
The letter was almost Orwellian in its cool, deadpan simplicity. Ridley and Sally Smith thought it was a joke.
"The stationery and the envelope looked like somebody was trying to jerk our chain," Ridley Smith says.
Someone was, but it was no joke.
An angry Ridley Smith called up Rick Badger, who was then the civic association president for Nottingham Forest, and asked him, "What do you want me to do? Do you want me to cut my grass? Rake the leaves?"
Badger promised to get back to Ridley Smith with some answers, but he never did.
That left the Smiths wondering: What could it be this time? The flowers at the corner of their lot? The wild plants out front? No, it had to be the vegetable garden. "We do not have a terribly formal looking garden," Sally Smith acknowledges. "It doesn't look like every other yard."
She's not kidding. The Smiths' lot -- garden and all -- definitely stands out among the 630 or so homes in their heavily wooded neighborhood just south of Memorial Drive and west of the Sam Houston Tollway.
From the north, the house is hidden behind a massive, colored growth of wild shrubs, plants and flowers. At the southeast corner of the property -- which is adjacent to a T intersection -- the landscaping threatens to swallow up any passing car, and maybe the whole road. At first glance it all does look chaotic, but a closer examination reveals an order to the natural profusion that is the Smiths' yard.
Most of their neighbors seem to like the Smiths, but their yard consistently has been a target of complaints from some of their neighbors ever since the family moved to Nottingham Forest in 1988.
During their first summer, they put in a flower bed at the southeast corner. The flowers grew, and so did the complaints that they impeded vision at the intersection. So the Smiths immediately leveled all their zinnias, which had just reached their peak.
The following summer, they replanted their flowers, but when the complaints came this time, they only cut them below two feet, which is all the neighborhood's deed restrictions required. Complaints continued to arise, but the Smiths decided they were not doing anything wrong and ignored them. In 1993, the city finally put up a stop sign and asked the Smiths to trim two bushes. They did, and that, Sally thought, would be the end of it.
She was wrong, and now she thinks that by failing to respond to the letters of complaint, she and her husband may have angered the civic association to the point that it honed in on their vegetable garden -- which had won the approval of the association's board before Ridley put it in.
The garden runs alongside the Smiths' driveway down to the street curb. It is in plain view of everyone who drives past. The whole plot measures maybe 15 feet by ten feet, and the veggies rise to heights of between two and four feet. There are peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, even flowers.
The weekend after they received the first letter back in February, Ridley and Sally went to work.
"It was in terrible shape, I admit it," Sally says.
But within two to three weeks, it was graded, completely weeded, tilled and replanted.
And all seemed well until the next unsigned missive arrived:
"Approximately one month ago we sent you a letter regarding complaints about your landscaping. Apparently you have made no effort to resolve this matter. We must insist that you comply with the deed restrictions and suggest that your landscaping be in reasonable conformity with the surrounding properties."
The Smiths couldn't figure it out: they had already trimmed their garden. Was the civic association so dead set on enforcing conformity that it couldn't tolerate a patch of God's wondrous bounty in their front yard?
Board member Hank Bower, a Nottingham Forest resident for seven and a half years, realizes that's how it might look to the curious observer from outside the neighborhood. But he insists that "conformity is not what we're after. There's a lot of variety [in the neighborhood], but it's all neat and orderly."
But the Smiths' garden, it turns out, is not the only problem the civic association has with the couple. Board members are still talking about those damn flowers at the corner, as well as the untamed plants in the front yard. Admittedly, the stop sign does kind of jump out from the growth at the motorist who's unfamiliar with the corner. But there have been no accidents there.
Leslie Bucher, who stepped down from the civic association's board last month, says neighbors are concerned about "not just Mr. Smith's yard, but does his yard set a precedent for the rest of the neighborhood?"