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Wildflower or Weeds? Two-year legal battle rooted in couple’s backyard

Brad Bradley Frankfort Square his backyard garden thfills wetldraining easement features prairie plantings Friday May 11 2012. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times

Brad Bradley, of Frankfort Square, in his backyard garden that fills a wetland draining easement and features prairie plantings Friday, May 11, 2012. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: July 26, 2012 6:03AM

One person’s wetland prairie is another’s overgrown eyesore.

And that can spell trouble when the two become neighbors.

That’s the case in southwest suburban Frankfort Square, where a two-year legal battle took root after a neighbor complained about the back yard of Brad Bradley and Sheri Bianchin.

The self-described “amateur naturalists” — who also happen to work for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — filled a drainage easement behind their home with “native plants and wildflowers.” They live on a subdivision cul-de-sac near Harlem Avenue.

The married couple said the plants are there to catch water, and they said Will County officials encouraged them in 1997 to plant them when they moved in. Bradley said most of their neighbors blessed the idea too, save for one who had no opinion.

But a neighbor next door said the prairie started luring rodents into her back yard three years ago. Tracy Bojan said several neighbors complained over the years about the couple’s wildflowers, but hers was the “final straw.”

In September 2010, Will County accused the couple of violating its weed law. The couple’s response: a 64-page federal civil rights complaint.

The ensuing battle has been costly. County officials said they’ve spent more than $50,000 on outside attorneys to fight the civil rights claims. Bradley and Bianchin have an attorney too, but Bradley declined to say how much that’s cost them. A judge ordered the couple this spring to pay the county $8,755 in legal fees, though, and Bradley said they still face potential penalties exceeding $1 million.

Bradley said he won’t give up because a principle’s at stake.

“I have the right to the quiet enjoyment of my yard, as do all of my neighbors,” he said, “And I think that’s a right that shouldn’t be trampled on.”

Bojan said she never meant to start such a massive fight. But she also said the county’s laws exist for a reason.

“What about everyone else’s enjoyment?” Bojan said. “I mean, we all pay taxes here.”

Birds, butterflies ... and rodents?

Chuck Pelkie, a spokesman for the Will County state’s attorney’s office, said the county’s weed law is “extraordinarily reasonable.” He also said it’s the government’s job to look out for people like Bojan.

“The way you keep your property shouldn’t interfere with your neighbor’s right to enjoy their property,” Pelkie said.

Bradley said he and his wife had limited options for dealing with the easement in their yard when they moved in. They planted the wildflowers to not only capture water but draw in birds and butterflies. Bradley concedes it also meant less time spent mowing in the summer.

Though some neighbors may have been receptive to the idea at first — and some still are — Pelkie said the county eventually heard complaints about rodents and “critters” crawling around next door.

“They didn’t want their children going up to the edge,” Pelkie said.

Bojan said her family moved in next door to Bradley and Bianchin in 1999, when she said the wildflowers were “dormant.”

Mary Tatroe, head of the state’s attorney’s civil division, said the county tried to work with the couple before filing the complaint. For example, she said, they agreed to mow a buffer between the wildflowers and the neighbors’ yards. Bradley said he eventually mowed it. Bojan said she’s still waiting.

“They were given so long to do that,” Tatroe said. “At some point, they still hadn’t done anything.”

So the county filed its complaint, and the couple hit back with their federal lawsuit. They accused the county of conspiring to prosecute them “selectively and maliciously.” They also said the weed law was unconstitutionally vague.

Tatroe denies that, but she said the county planned to update it anyway. The revision happened early, she said, because of the complaint.

‘You do whatever you want’

Pelkie and Tatroe said the county brought in an outside attorney — Martin W. McManaman — to handle the couple’s federal complaint. It was dismissed on April 14, 2011, but the naturalists filed a similar counter-claim five days later at the state level. McManaman helped there, too.

His work has cost the county about $50,000, Pelkie said.

But the issue is still moving through the local court system. Pelkie and Tatroe said attorneys haven’t even had a chance to deal with the alleged ordinance violation. That’s why the couple’s wildflowers are still there.

“It’s extraordinarily unfortunate,” Pelkie said.

Even if the county chose to drop the ordinance violation, ending the fight and the legal bills, Tatroe said the two sides would still be forced into a courtroom to deal with Bradley and Bianchin’s civil rights complaints. Pelkie said the county tried to settle with the couple, but they couldn’t reach a deal.

According to a letter the county received from their attorney, the couple’s demands included a written apology and attorneys’ fees. They also wanted the county to highlight their yard as an “exemplary way to use native landscaping in a suburban environment.”

Pelkie said dropping the complaint would also send the wrong message.

“What do we do the next time that there’s a case like this?” he said.

Other neighbors who answered their doors last week said they don’t really mind the wildflowers. One, who asked not to be named, said she understands the couple’s reasons for planting them. And she called them “really nice people.”

Laura Reis said her family moved behind Bradley and Bianchin’s home about 15 years ago. She said her family never had problems with bugs or rodents.

“It’s kind of like your own property,” Reis said. “You do whatever you want.”

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