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?"
Apparently the board thought it did, and a bad one at that, because the next letter to the Smiths came in late May, and it was signed by attorney Rick Butler, whose firm has been retained by the civic association to enforce Nottingham Forest's deed restrictions. His letter stated that the garden was in violation of Article 6.07 of the Restrictions and Covenants for Nottingham Forest, which dictates:
"No noxious or offensive activities shall be carried on upon any lot, nor shall anything be done thereon which shall be or become an annoyance or nuisance to the owners of other tracts."
That's what you get for growing tomatoes these days, and, by all accounts, good ones at that. The Smiths were ordered to remove the garden and refrain from planting another "anywhere on your lot in view to the public," and to groom and trim their landscape in such a manner as to "be in conformity with the neighboring lots in the subdivision."
The problem, says Ridley Smith, is that vegetables need about eight hours of sunlight every day to grow. The only place on the Smiths' property where the neighborhood's big pine trees wouldn't block out the sun was near the street.
Ridley and Sally had ten days to comply with the order before the association could have filed suit and sought to recover all court and attorneys' fees. Since Butler was already on the meter, the letter ended with a directive to Ridley: cut a check to the neighborhood association for $48.33.
"It is a good example of the tyranny of government," Ridley Smith says. "They can harass and complain with no cost." The Smiths, however, enlisted the help of an attorney of their own and were able to avoid the fine.
As they awaited the association's next move, they took stock of their thorny situation. Ridley and Sally used to give a lot of the vegetables away to their neighbors. "The kids liked to get out there and plant seeds of their own. We used to have a lot of people walking by," Ridley says, "now nobody is there anymore."
It's unclear how many complaints the board received, but Bower says the house is well-known in the neighborhood, and the opposition to the yard comes from more than "one or two neighbors who are crotchety people looking for trouble."
Ridley Smith acknowledges that the "vast amount of people in this neighborhood are supportive of the civic association."
"They don't want to rock the boat in case they jeopardize any benefits they might get in the future. If you talk to individuals who walk by to show their kids, there are a very small few who will express their outrage. But most people in the neighborhood just don't want to be different."
The Smiths say they're just trying to get along with everyone, and they were uncomfortable querying their immediate neighbors. But it appears there's surprising support for them on the same block. Martha Raudsep lives across the street. She's been in the neighborhood for 15 years. "The vegetables are good," she says. "The peppers are excellent, the tomatoes are outstanding and the eggplants are good."
Next door to Raudsep is Gail Jensen, who has the best view of the Smith's garden patch. "I love it," she says. "I think it's neat." Jensen feels bad that the Smiths are having such a tough time. "Neighborhood associations serve a purpose, but they can get overzealous," she observes.
One house down from the Smiths, though, is Kelly Corrigan, who grew up in the neighborhood and thinks the garden is tacky. And next door to her, Cindy, who was unwilling to provide her last name, says, "In a neighborhood such as this, it does not blend in. It's not appropriate."
But her mom disagrees. "They should be able to do whatever they want," says Cindy's mom. "If I had the space, I'd put mine in front."
On June 19, civic association counsel Butler sent a letter to the Smiths' lawyer in which there's no talk of deed restrictions or use of the relative terms "noxious" and "offensive." He only writes that the location of the garden is "simply inappropriate" and asks that Ridley Smith "remove all existing vegetables and/or plants, and remove the wood borders, and place sod in the area of the garden within 15 days of the date of this letter."
The deadline passed on July 4; nothing happened. Though their lawyer declines comment, the Smiths are fairly confident they would have been able to legally keep their vegetable patch. But they've decided to remove the garden anyway. They feel hurt that it has caused so much hostility. There is a touching air of nervousness about them; they don't want to stir up further resentment by fighting the good fight. They're a little edgy about the possible backlash from their talking to the Houston Press. Sally Smith says she's even growing tired of the taste of home-grown tomatoes.
"We have three children," she says, ages three, four and 11. "If we were at another phase in our lives, maybe ...."
"We're trying to be good neighbors," her husband adds. "We want to make a stand, because it appears that they're making a campaign of harassment, but we've got to live there and face these people everyday ... and we don't want to put them to scorn and abuse."
And so -- despite the apparent support of those neighbors who live closest to it -- the Smiths say they'll pull up the last of their vegetables by August 1. They hope their capitulation will allow all concerned to put the episode behind them. But they may be headed for a third act: board member Bower says that removing the garden doesn't satisfy objections to the rest of the yard, so the Smiths may end up in court after all.
As of this writing, there had been no face-to-face meeting between the Smiths and the civic association's officers. And there's not likely to be one anytime soon. "Our legal advice was not to go over and talk to folks," Bower says. The reason, he explains, was because the civic association's lawyer warned that such meetings often end in serious confrontations -- even violence.
Such is neighborhood life in the big city, circa 1995.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.