Judge puts limits on organic garden
The garden is gone if neighbors smell offensive odors, ruling says
Article Courtesy of The Indianapolis Star

By Courtenay Edelhart
July 09, 2002

A Marion Superior Court judge ruled today that a Northwestside woman may continue to garden organically to the extent that it doesn't create odors offensive to her neighbors.

The Trees II Homeowners Association filed suit against homeowner Dawn Marie last June, saying her application of aged horse manure and carrot pulp from a health food store created a foul odor and violated the neighborhood's ban on "noxious activity."

Judge Michael Keele stressed that he, himself, is an organic gardener, and has no problem with organic gardening in general. However, he said homeowner association rules forbade activity that limits the use and enjoyment of property, and several neighbors had previously testified Marie's yard smelled so foul at times that they were unable to go outside or open windows. Some even said they became nauseous.

"Organic gardening isn't on trial, here," Keele said. "It's never been on trial. It's wonderful. It's commendable. You just can't do it in a way that disrupts your neighbors."

Marie, 49, was disappointed with the ruling, saying it was too vague.

"It's so hard to quantify what smells and what doesn't," she said. "You can't take a picture of it or document it. It's entirely subjective, and neighbors who object to organic gardening and have animosity against me get to be the judge of what's acceptable and what's not."

Organic gardening may uproot owner
Article Courtesy of The Indianapolis Star
Woman being sued by homeowners group because her neighbors say compost stinks

By Courtenay Edelhart

A Northwestside woman may lose her house in a dispute with her homeowners association over her desire to garden organically.

Dawn Marie, 49, bought her home in the 4900 block of Cherry Hill Court intending to grow flowers, herbs and vegetables, but she decided the dry, heavy clay soil in her yard needed improving. 

Marie prefers organic gardening to chemical fertilizers, so in the summer of 2000 she began treating her soil with aged horse manure and carrot pulp from a health food store. Soon, next door neighbor Michael Pieper complained to the Trees II Homeowners Association board that the compost looked and smelled bad.

The board and Pieper filed a lawsuit in June 2001 asking a Marion Superior Court judge to ban Marie from using "raw food and sewage" to fertilize.

Judge Michael Keele initially ruled in Marie's favor after she argued the association's covenant and bylaws don't prohibit organic gardening. But Keele later changed his mind during a hearing on a motion to correct errors, agreeing with the board and ordering Marie to stop.

Marie will try to change Keele's mind again when the hearing resumes at 1 p.m. today.

Both Pieper and fellow plaintiff John O'Sullivan, who lives across the street from Marie, declined to speak to a reporter. The association's attorney, Matthew Griffith, also declined to comment.

In an August deposition, Pieper testified that the "pukey-looking" carrot pulp smelled like rotten garbage, and a pile of grass clippings and "brown and black gunk" in Marie's back yard also stank.

"We had to close our windows because the stench was coming in the house," he said.

Marie said that if she loses, she will have to sell her house to pay her $29,000 in legal fees and the $17,000 she estimates her homeowners association has spent.

Marie says O'Sullivan, who serves on the homeowners association board, has a vendetta against her. Marie is a former board member and has complained about dues being too high and the way they're spent.

In a separate deposition, O'Sullivan testified that relations with Marie had become "strained" over disagreements on the board.

Marie said she doesn't know why Pieper and O'Sullivan find organic gardening offensive.

"If I used chemicals, that would smell a lot worse than organic compost," she said. "The stuff I was using didn't smell, and once I started tilling it in, you couldn't even see it."

Marie said she tried unsuccessfully to work out a compromise. She began burying the carrot pulp and offered to build a 6-foot fence and plant greenery to block Pieper's view of her back yard.

In the deposition, Pieper said he sued after he couldn't get Marie to respond to other problems, such as an unsightly pile of wood under a tarp in her back yard.

Marie said she wants to use the wood as steppingstones for a pond but hasn't finished the project because of the cost of fighting the suit and work-related travel.

Marie is a technical writer in civilian life, but the military reservist has been called to active duty as a logistics coordinator for Grissom Air Reserve Base and is away from home most of the week.

Purdue University horticulturist Steve Mayer, an expert witness in the case, visited Marie's home last July and said her compost conformed with standard organic gardening practices.

"I didn't find anything objectionable," he said. "It was a very mild smell -- just smelled like carrots to me."

Mayer thinks this is a case of hostility between neighbors getting out of hand. "It never should have escalated to the point of a lawsuit. You can't keep all odors in your yard.

"Where do you draw the line? If you're a vegetarian, are you going to sue your next door neighbor for cooking meat on a grill?"

The Marion County Health Department also inspected the property. Environmental health specialist Josh Seib sent Marie a letter indicating a complaint was unjustified, because composting is not regarded as a health or sanitation issue. Seib could not be reached for comment.

Marie is representing herself today because she's run out of money for attorneys.

"It's really ironic that I'm helping my country to fight terrorists, but I can't afford to fight the terrorists who are attacking me through my own homeowner association, and using my dues to do it," she said.