Virginia creeper, a native vine with berries and serrated leaves in clusters of five, has grown on Elaine Scattergood’s Avalon home for 40 years. It’s one of her yard’s wildlife-friendly plantings, which provide shelter and food for birds and pollinators such as bees.
That sets her yard apart from most others on her street, which are covered with gravel and stone.
Looking different itself is probably a risk in an oceanfront municipality where the median price of a house is $1.5 million (according to Zillow).
Perhaps Scattergood took another risk a few years ago when she opposed the borough’s plan to remove 210 Japanese black pines from its high dune forest. The borough claimed they were infested with southern pine beetles, but a tree expert hired by residents opposed to the cutting said the borough’s photos showed evidence of turpentine beetles, not pine beetles.
Scattergood got permission from the borough for the tree expert to examine the trees, but then borough officials revoked the permission. The tree cutting proceeded.
This year the borough charged Scattergood with failure to remove overgrown vegetation from her house — the Virginia creeper that had been there for four decades. She pleaded not guilty and will be tried in municipal court next month.
Specifically, the borough said, its code requires that the Virginia creeper be cut to less than 9 inches in length. This is absurd on the face of it — there’s no such thing as a climbing vine that is less than 9 inches long or climbs less than 9 inches.
It’s not as though Avalon is against Virginia creeper. The Avalon Environmental Commission includes it on its Approved List of Dune Vegetation, noting that it tolerates the salt spray from the ocean.
Virginia creeper is also listed as explicitly acceptable under Avalon’s Dune Vegetation Management Plan.
Indeed, the vine is recommended by Patricia Sutton of Cape May County, a backyard habitat educator for more than 30 years and co-author of such books as “How to Spot Owls” and “Birds and Birding at Cape May.” She said Virginia creeper is eaten by 37 species of birds and is one of the crucial foods for their migration. It also thrives with little care and doesn’t need things like pesticides and fertilizer that become pollutants when they run off into waterways.
A good spot to see Virginia creeper in Avalon, besides at Scattergood’s home, is at the 48th Street Dune Walk, one of the guided Birding & Wildlife Trails set up by NJ Audubon around the state.
Avalon should adjust its priorities. It needs more natural habitat and plants like Virginia creeper, not less.
The state Department of Environmental Protection says 81 percent of Avalon is paved. That means the borough and its residents are contributing to the pollution of waterways and storm flooding by stopping rainfall from being absorbed into the ground. Avalon would be a good first candidate at the Jersey Shore for the new state-authorized runoff fee and the stormwater improvements it could fund.
Borough residents might wish to be known for such an environmentally friendly action, rather than for quashing someone’s effort to be a little greener.