By John Schaffner
Inspired by President Barack Obama’s challenge to Americans to give of their time to improve their communities, and by a nudge from his wife, Joshua Pechter decided to spruce up a corner of his neighborhood, Mayson Ravine Park in the Brookhaven area of Atlanta.
He rounded up support from his neighbors along East Club Lane, adjacent to the Capital City Club, for a total of $1,800 in cash and three days of sweat equity to pull from the ravine park 3,000 pounds of weeds and underbrush, two dozen dead and fallen trees, and such oddities as a sink.
The Atlanta government rewarded the effort to maintain city green space by issuing Pechter a citation on the last day of the work for “stockpiling mulch in a right of way without a permit.”
It seems Atlanta Department of Public Works employee Arves Shields was driving through the neighborhood and spotted a pile of mulch at one corner of the park — one of three piles the tree company left for the neighbors after grinding dead trees that were removed.
Pechter tried to reason with the city employee not to write the citation because what the neighbor volunteers were doing was good for the city, but Shields would hear none of that. Pechter said Shields told him: “I have cited many people. You are going to court.”
Well, 34-year-old entrepreneur Pechter may be going to Atlanta Municipal Court May 6, but he apparently will have some heavyweight support at the hearing for the citation to be dropped from both the city’s Department of Public Works and Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs, according to District 7 City Councilman Howard Shook.
Shook indicated both departments want to see that this “misunderstanding” is corrected. Public Works will have a deputy commissioner at the hearing and the Parks Department also will have a ranking official there.
Both will ask the judge to drop the charges, according to Shook.
Shook said the official citation cannot just be torn up once it has been issued. The court must decide it.
The story began when Pechter, who said he tried to get the city and his neighborhood association to pay to spruce up Mayson Ravine, saw a notice that Park Pride had grants available to neighborhood groups for fixing up and maintaining parks and green spaces. He applied for one of the grants. He also talked to Councilman Shook’s office about getting the park area spruced up.
But Pechter is admittedly impatient, so he decided not to wait for the Park Pride grant.
He felt that sprucing up the 3-acre park was important because 150 to 200 people a day run through it, and it backs up to the golf club.
“This is nothing like saving police and fire positions in the city, which is crucial, but is something I can get directly involved with and get it done quickly,” said the investment adviser, who has lived with his family on East Club Lane since 2005. He noted the city has a load of financial problems and cannot afford to maintain parks.
This park, at best, occasionally received “peripheral work and a trim and blow,” he said.
Pechter’s wife, Meredith, helped motivate him to spearhead the project by prodding him to spruce things up around their yard after the couple had their fourth child, daughter Rowan, who is now 4 weeks old. The Pechters also have twin 4-year-old sons, Truen and Grayson, and a 2-year-old son, Hollace.
Pechter went to his neighbors and said he would match any donation they made to buy supplies and a landscaper for the project. He also pleaded with them to help by working on the project.
He had a biologist who lives in the neighborhood walk through the area to identify the local vegetation and the invasive types so they wouldn’t remove things that should stay.
The donations came to $1,100, and Pechter threw in an additional $700. The mulch was free, a product of the dead trees removed from the ravine.
The homeowners began removing weeds and trash at the beginning of April. Pechter said he did not know he had to contact the city to get a permit for the work. He said Shook’s office knew what he and his neighbors were doing. The neighborhood association knew, and so did Park Pride, although he said he still has not heard about the grant application.
Atlanta’s commissioner of parks, recreation and cultural affairs, Dianne Harnell Cohen, said: “This matter is clearly a misunderstanding with our partner, Brookhaven Club Neighborhood Association. The city of Atlanta entered into an agreement with the association to keep the park litter-free and requires our approval for any projects to modify the park. Once we approve the project, it is listed on the city events, and Atlanta Police Department becomes aware of the project. In this matter, the project was not listed.”
She said the Department of Public Works “was on site during the dumping of the mulch, and the inspector issued the citation. We will go to court with the community to say it was a misunderstanding.”
Using the terms “unfortunate” and “embarrassing,” Shook said the neighbors “missed a process step.” He said there should not have been a citation, not even a warning. He suggested an explanation would have been in order.
Pechter said it’s “absurd” for Harnell Cohen to say the neighborhood should have called her department for permission to spruce up the park. “She is the one who gave the park to the neighborhood,” along with the responsibility for its maintenance. “I was there when she thanked the neighborhood for taking ownership of the park” after the Capital City Club sold it to the city.
The citation did not stop the neighbors. They completed the mulching.