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No Right to Plant Cactus

— One house stands out on the 3200 block of Galloway Drive in University City. While most of the houses are Cape Cod or ranch style and feature traditional lawn and shrub front yards, 42-year-old Anthony Porrello's house is Mediterranean and features white stucco walls and planters. Cacti, flowering succulents, rosemary bushes, citrus and mulberry trees grow amid boulders embedded in mounds of soil on either side of the curving front walk. On an early August afternoon, the stars and stripes -- mounted on a piece of rebar driven into the left mound -- flapped in the ocean breeze next to and a bit above an Italian flag on its own piece of rebar. On the driveway on the right side of the yard sat 50 river rocks grouped by size -- from basketball down to golf-ball size. A tarp had been thrown over a pile of soil nearby. Behind the left mound, long pieces of scrap wood lay on the bare dirt. On a wide walkway on the left side of the house, a pallet of 60-pound concrete bags sat near the sidewalk. Behind them was a stack of recycled bricks, and beyond the bricks more scrap lumber. On top of both bricks and wood sat a dozen plastic soda bottles. Some had been cut in half and were being used as temporary housing for young plants.

The place has the chaotic look of a work in progress. The problem is, the work has been in progress for over four years. And, in response to numerous complaints from Porrello's neighbors -- one in particular -- the city of San Diego's Neighborhood Code Enforcement office has paid so many visits to Porrello (at least three dozen) and cited him for so many small violations that he's close to suing the city, with the help of a constitutional watchdog group called the Western Conservative Alliance. He alleges selective enforcement and harassment.

When Porrello bought his house, the front yard consisted of grass dying from lack of water and a few nondescript shrubs. "It was absolutely disgusting; it was the worst-looking house in the neighborhood."

But he envisioned a fusion of Mediterranean and desert landscape plants and features to match the house's white stucco and new red tile roof. He wanted to do the work himself, according to his own artistic vision and in keeping with his Sicilian heritage. "This is my first house," says Porrello. "I had a condo before, and I wanted to be able to do something in the garden. I had gone to visit my grandparents in southern Sicily -- we would visit them every couple of years when I was growing up -- and they had a garden with a lot of fruit trees. When I bought this place, I thought I should do the same thing; it is kind of nice to be able to go into the yard, pick something, and you can share it with people; you share it with neighbors, because you can never consume that much."

The second part of Porrello's vision was to create something that required no irrigation. A tallish, wiry man with a thick head of curly black hair and a Van Dyke beard showing flecks of gray, he wears a pair of jeans and a white T-shirt as he works with a crew of laborers in his front yard. His mind jumps from spot to spot, subject to subject, and his voice races as he describes his vision for his yard. "Good environmental practice," he says, "I think, saves money; it has capitalistic properties because we work with nature. God made nature for us to utilize, and it is a perfect system, and we need to respect it. So I just decided I am not going to have grass, and I am going to use plants that don't need water, and any water that does fall will be caught by all of the concrete work. All of the concrete work drains into the planters; everything drains in."

He walks up the bare concrete steps -- they will be tiled with Mexican saltillos some day -- to the sunken area behind the landscape mound. "This area is still in the construction phase," he says. "There is going to be another wall at that end over there, where the old satellite dish is lying -- that is going to be recycled as a birdbath, by the way. After this is done, there is going to be a double barbecue right here, and there will be some water faucets there with a drain to water the trees, so if you rinse a spatula, you will be watering the trees. So nothing goes to waste. No runoff from this property will flow into the gutter.... These walls are gray right now, but they're going to be painted white like the house.... There is going to be a fireplace right here, so I will be able to entertain a lot of people.... This is a mulberry tree, and this year it started fruiting, and it was really nice just going up there in the morning and picking mulberries. You know, it is nice to enjoy your garden. The fact that your yard produces something for you, it is great."

But not everyone thought Porrello's landscaping choices were great. He says some neighbors have expressed admiration for his garden; others have been upset. "One told me, 'You have no right to plant cactus in this neighborhood.' "

The neighbors didn't only complain to Porrello; they complained to the city's code-enforcement department. Agents of the department started showing up, Porrello says, before the end of 2000. They cited him for the manner in which he was storing his building materials. Some of the materials, such as the plastic bottles he uses for mixing mortar and storing plants, "They called them trash and told me I'm not allowed to store trash."

Porrello bends over and picks up the end of a 12-foot piece of wood, ten inches wide and a half-inch thick. "This is a piece of siding which I have been using [as a concrete form] in every wall that I have poured. The people across the street added a room, and they remodeled the entire house. I collected two or three leftover pieces from over there because this stuff bends; you can reuse it and reuse it a million times, and the concrete sticks to it and leaves little holes in the wall that you made. And when you put stucco on it, it grabs it really well. So I don't want to use new materials because, aside from having to waste resources, this stuff works better. I have a few more pieces of recycled wood that I use for the same purpose, but the city says I'm storing garbage wood over here."

Other issues the city has with Porrello's landscaping include sand runoff and his use of cactus and large boulders in the city-controlled right-of-way, the first ten feet from the curb toward the front of any house. "A lot of people make the mistake of thinking the whole front yard is their property," says Tony Khalil of the code-enforcement department. "But actually, there is a curb-to-property line distance, called the public right-of-way, which is usually wider than just the sidewalk. It's usually eight to ten feet from the curb, and usually the sidewalks are only four- to five-feet wide."

Though such things as grass and sprinklers are allowed in the right-of-way, Khalil says large rocks, fences, and large bushes are not. Consequently, his office has ordered Porrello to move some plants and rocks back toward the house. "But look," Porrello says, pointing to a neighbor's house. "His bush over here is in the public right-of-way. That bush is perhaps 20 feet high. Technically it is illegal. That other tree overhangs on the public right-of-way. Those people over there had a fence in the right-of-way. Everybody has stuff in the public right-of-way. When I point that out to them, they say, 'Let's talk about your property, not about anybody else's.' I am being required to comply with things that nobody else is required to."

Porrello believes the codes regarding sand runoff, right-of-way, and garbage are being enforced on him in an effort to make him stop work altogether. And Gerald Unis, an Irvine lawyer who has taken up his cause at the request of the Arizona-based Western Conservative Alliance, agrees. "The 10th Amendment," he explains, "allows the states to use their police power to make the environment safe and habitable for its citizens. The state can also abuse that police power and trample the rights that the 5th and the 14th Amendments give us; basically that no individual citizen of the United States shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation. And if the City of San Diego interferes so severely with Mr. Porrello's use of his property, then they have essentially taken his property without just compensation."

Khalil responds, " You expect me to ignore a violation in the right-of-way? Do you know how much the city pays off in injuries and people tripping over little potted plants? An old lady walking her dog falls and displaces her hip because she fell over the little potted plant that another 80-year-old lady put in front of her house thinking that it is on her property. We are not going to expose the city to liability. That is a violation; there is no question about it. The storing garbage, we will pursue that anywhere in the city of San Diego. Anywhere. Storing of trash material -- if it is not covered, if it is exposed in the right-of-way -- we pursue it anywhere, not only on Galloway. And, of course, if you have sand runoff, if you have poor drainage, and if you have surface material that is sloughing off the property down to the sidewalk and people trip and fall."

Khalil believes the city is an innocent middleman in this situation. "We have been very cooperative with Mr. Porrello. We've tried very hard to help him get through all of this. The whole situation is really about Mr. Porrello and his neighbors. We respond to complaints, and his neighbors have filed numerous complaints against him.

"He has been insensitive to the neighborhood," Khalil adds. "Four years is a long time to live next to a construction job. Even the most understanding people, living next door to something like this for this long will say, 'Enough,' and I think he shouldn't be having the sympathy that we have given him in the last four years. He has been given numerous, numerous opportunities to correct whatever he needs to do and just move on. Meanwhile he is completely insensitive to the neighborhood, and likewise they are not going to cut him any slack, and we are in the middle trying to get him to just keep moving."

Most of the complaints filed against Porrello have come from his next-door neighbor, Barbara Ventura, who happens to work for the city manager's office. She refused to comment when she answered the door to a reporter, as did several other neighbors. One, who wouldn't give her name, said, "It isn't really Mr. Porrello versus his neighbors. It's Mr. Porrello versus one of his neighbors."

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— One house stands out on the 3200 block of Galloway Drive in University City. While most of the houses are Cape Cod or ranch style and feature traditional lawn and shrub front yards, 42-year-old Anthony Porrello's house is Mediterranean and features white stucco walls and planters. Cacti, flowering succulents, rosemary bushes, citrus and mulberry trees grow amid boulders embedded in mounds of soil on either side of the curving front walk. On an early August afternoon, the stars and stripes -- mounted on a piece of rebar driven into the left mound -- flapped in the ocean breeze next to and a bit above an Italian flag on its own piece of rebar. On the driveway on the right side of the yard sat 50 river rocks grouped by size -- from basketball down to golf-ball size. A tarp had been thrown over a pile of soil nearby. Behind the left mound, long pieces of scrap wood lay on the bare dirt. On a wide walkway on the left side of the house, a pallet of 60-pound concrete bags sat near the sidewalk. Behind them was a stack of recycled bricks, and beyond the bricks more scrap lumber. On top of both bricks and wood sat a dozen plastic soda bottles. Some had been cut in half and were being used as temporary housing for young plants.

The place has the chaotic look of a work in progress. The problem is, the work has been in progress for over four years. And, in response to numerous complaints from Porrello's neighbors -- one in particular -- the city of San Diego's Neighborhood Code Enforcement office has paid so many visits to Porrello (at least three dozen) and cited him for so many small violations that he's close to suing the city, with the help of a constitutional watchdog group called the Western Conservative Alliance. He alleges selective enforcement and harassment.

When Porrello bought his house, the front yard consisted of grass dying from lack of water and a few nondescript shrubs. "It was absolutely disgusting; it was the worst-looking house in the neighborhood."

But he envisioned a fusion of Mediterranean and desert landscape plants and features to match the house's white stucco and new red tile roof. He wanted to do the work himself, according to his own artistic vision and in keeping with his Sicilian heritage. "This is my first house," says Porrello. "I had a condo before, and I wanted to be able to do something in the garden. I had gone to visit my grandparents in southern Sicily -- we would visit them every couple of years when I was growing up -- and they had a garden with a lot of fruit trees. When I bought this place, I thought I should do the same thing; it is kind of nice to be able to go into the yard, pick something, and you can share it with people; you share it with neighbors, because you can never consume that much."

The second part of Porrello's vision was to create something that required no irrigation. A tallish, wiry man with a thick head of curly black hair and a Van Dyke beard showing flecks of gray, he wears a pair of jeans and a white T-shirt as he works with a crew of laborers in his front yard. His mind jumps from spot to spot, subject to subject, and his voice races as he describes his vision for his yard. "Good environmental practice," he says, "I think, saves money; it has capitalistic properties because we work with nature. God made nature for us to utilize, and it is a perfect system, and we need to respect it. So I just decided I am not going to have grass, and I am going to use plants that don't need water, and any water that does fall will be caught by all of the concrete work. All of the concrete work drains into the planters; everything drains in."

He walks up the bare concrete steps -- they will be tiled with Mexican saltillos some day -- to the sunken area behind the landscape mound. "This area is still in the construction phase," he says. "There is going to be another wall at that end over there, where the old satellite dish is lying -- that is going to be recycled as a birdbath, by the way. After this is done, there is going to be a double barbecue right here, and there will be some water faucets there with a drain to water the trees, so if you rinse a spatula, you will be watering the trees. So nothing goes to waste. No runoff from this property will flow into the gutter.... These walls are gray right now, but they're going to be painted white like the house.... There is going to be a fireplace right here, so I will be able to entertain a lot of people.... This is a mulberry tree, and this year it started fruiting, and it was really nice just going up there in the morning and picking mulberries. You know, it is nice to enjoy your garden. The fact that your yard produces something for you, it is great."

But not everyone thought Porrello's landscaping choices were great. He says some neighbors have expressed admiration for his garden; others have been upset. "One told me, 'You have no right to plant cactus in this neighborhood.' "

The neighbors didn't only complain to Porrello; they complained to the city's code-enforcement department. Agents of the department started showing up, Porrello says, before the end of 2000. They cited him for the manner in which he was storing his building materials. Some of the materials, such as the plastic bottles he uses for mixing mortar and storing plants, "They called them trash and told me I'm not allowed to store trash."

Porrello bends over and picks up the end of a 12-foot piece of wood, ten inches wide and a half-inch thick. "This is a piece of siding which I have been using [as a concrete form] in every wall that I have poured. The people across the street added a room, and they remodeled the entire house. I collected two or three leftover pieces from over there because this stuff bends; you can reuse it and reuse it a million times, and the concrete sticks to it and leaves little holes in the wall that you made. And when you put stucco on it, it grabs it really well. So I don't want to use new materials because, aside from having to waste resources, this stuff works better. I have a few more pieces of recycled wood that I use for the same purpose, but the city says I'm storing garbage wood over here."

Other issues the city has with Porrello's landscaping include sand runoff and his use of cactus and large boulders in the city-controlled right-of-way, the first ten feet from the curb toward the front of any house. "A lot of people make the mistake of thinking the whole front yard is their property," says Tony Khalil of the code-enforcement department. "But actually, there is a curb-to-property line distance, called the public right-of-way, which is usually wider than just the sidewalk. It's usually eight to ten feet from the curb, and usually the sidewalks are only four- to five-feet wide."

Though such things as grass and sprinklers are allowed in the right-of-way, Khalil says large rocks, fences, and large bushes are not. Consequently, his office has ordered Porrello to move some plants and rocks back toward the house. "But look," Porrello says, pointing to a neighbor's house. "His bush over here is in the public right-of-way. That bush is perhaps 20 feet high. Technically it is illegal. That other tree overhangs on the public right-of-way. Those people over there had a fence in the right-of-way. Everybody has stuff in the public right-of-way. When I point that out to them, they say, 'Let's talk about your property, not about anybody else's.' I am being required to comply with things that nobody else is required to."

Porrello believes the codes regarding sand runoff, right-of-way, and garbage are being enforced on him in an effort to make him stop work altogether. And Gerald Unis, an Irvine lawyer who has taken up his cause at the request of the Arizona-based Western Conservative Alliance, agrees. "The 10th Amendment," he explains, "allows the states to use their police power to make the environment safe and habitable for its citizens. The state can also abuse that police power and trample the rights that the 5th and the 14th Amendments give us; basically that no individual citizen of the United States shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation. And if the City of San Diego interferes so severely with Mr. Porrello's use of his property, then they have essentially taken his property without just compensation."

Khalil responds, " You expect me to ignore a violation in the right-of-way? Do you know how much the city pays off in injuries and people tripping over little potted plants? An old lady walking her dog falls and displaces her hip because she fell over the little potted plant that another 80-year-old lady put in front of her house thinking that it is on her property. We are not going to expose the city to liability. That is a violation; there is no question about it. The storing garbage, we will pursue that anywhere in the city of San Diego. Anywhere. Storing of trash material -- if it is not covered, if it is exposed in the right-of-way -- we pursue it anywhere, not only on Galloway. And, of course, if you have sand runoff, if you have poor drainage, and if you have surface material that is sloughing off the property down to the sidewalk and people trip and fall."

Khalil believes the city is an innocent middleman in this situation. "We have been very cooperative with Mr. Porrello. We've tried very hard to help him get through all of this. The whole situation is really about Mr. Porrello and his neighbors. We respond to complaints, and his neighbors have filed numerous complaints against him.

"He has been insensitive to the neighborhood," Khalil adds. "Four years is a long time to live next to a construction job. Even the most understanding people, living next door to something like this for this long will say, 'Enough,' and I think he shouldn't be having the sympathy that we have given him in the last four years. He has been given numerous, numerous opportunities to correct whatever he needs to do and just move on. Meanwhile he is completely insensitive to the neighborhood, and likewise they are not going to cut him any slack, and we are in the middle trying to get him to just keep moving."

Most of the complaints filed against Porrello have come from his next-door neighbor, Barbara Ventura, who happens to work for the city manager's office. She refused to comment when she answered the door to a reporter, as did several other neighbors. One, who wouldn't give her name, said, "It isn't really Mr. Porrello versus his neighbors. It's Mr. Porrello versus one of his neighbors."

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