September 2, 2013

Spat over community garden grows

Opponents are camping on the site to protest the Legion's plans to clear it for a parking lot.

By AMY CALDER Morning Sentinel

PALERMO - Phillip Frizzell said if the bulldozers come Monday to destroy the organic community garden that feeds 30 families, he will not do a thing to stop them.

click image to enlarge

Connie Bellet and her husband, Phillip Frizzell, work in the Palermo Community Garden on Sunday. A lawyer representing the Legion now says there will be no bulldozers Monday.

David Leaming/Morning Sentinel

"We'll just let them demolish it and we'll go to the courts, which is basically all we can do," he said Sunday afternoon at the Palermo Community Garden, which he and his wife, Connie Bellet, manage with help from volunteers next to their mobile home off Turner Ridge Road.

They lease the land for their home and gardens from Malcolm Glidden American Legion Post 163 for $1 and it's paid through 2020, when it expires. The lease stems from a 1999 lease after the land was donated by a resident. Belfast District Court confirmed two years ago that the lease is enforceable.

They give produce from the gardens to the Palermo Food Pantry in the nearby community center.

Frizzell and Bellet got a letter last month from the Legion post saying the organization plans to clear the garden site to build a parking lot.

Frizzell and Bellet were told to remove the sheds, gardens and other property before construction begins Monday. The letter is dated July 23 and signed by Legion commander Clayton York Jr.

"Any structure not moved by (Sept. 2) will be moved by the Legion," the letter says

Bellet is president of the Living Communities Foundation, which is hosting a two-day garden party to celebrate the garden's abundance. The party started Sunday afternoon and by about 3:30 p.m. more than a dozen people had turned out to eat, listen to music and set up tents to spend the night in.

They said they would stay into Monday and lend support for the garden if the Legion makes good on its promise to bulldoze it.

"If they're going to come in with a bulldozer tomorrow, I'm going to be here," said Mike Dunn, a Navy veteran.

Bellet and Frizzell said they called the Kennebec County Sheriff's Department and a deputy was going to be on hand Monday to help ensure the event is peaceful and people are safe.

But Bellet, Frizzell and the party guests may not have to worry.

Matt Evans, a lawyer representing the Legion, said earlier Sunday there will be no bulldozers Monday.

"The Legion does not want to add additional controversy to this," Evans said in a telephone interview. "Their plans are currently on delay until a different way can be found to make this all work."

Frizzell said no one told them that. "As far as we're concerned, the threat is still imminent," he said.

LONG-STANDING DISAGREEMENT

The dispute between the Legion and the gardeners has been going on for several years.

"There has been animosity between the two groups for quite some time," Evans, the Legion's lawyer, acknowledged.

Contacted by telephone Sunday, York confirmed there would be no demolition Monday. "This is totally blown out of proportion," he said.

York said he has been getting hate mail and phone calls from people over the issue. He agreed to meet with a reporter at his South China home at 4 p.m. Sunday, but no one answered the door around that time.

Evans said the Legion is doing nothing wrong. The land on which the Palermo Community Foundation and American Legion post are was formerly owned by John Potter, now dead, who donated land to each entity.

The lease, which was effective in 1999, allowed the couple to put a mobile home and storage shed on the Legion property. The Legion sought to have a court deem the lease unenforceable and void, but Belfast District Court Judge Patricia G. Worth ruled April 27, 2011, in Bellet and Frizzell's favor.

Evans said Sunday that the lease authorizes the couple only to have the mobile home, a storage shed, room for mobile home additions and space for entering and exiting. He said the lease does not authorize the several storage sheds and garden that are there now.

The Legion post has grown and needs to expand its parking lot, he said.

"There are more facts that surround this, but the Legion doesn't want to be in the position of slinging mud and making accusations," he said.

FOOD FOR THE NEEDY

Bellet is a former president of the local Legion auxiliary and Frizzell is a Legion member and service officer who has paid his dues for life. But their relationship with the Legion is anything but amicable.

They started the gardens 14 years ago and added a grape arbor and three garden sheds.

At the site Sunday, Linda Grant, an Army veteran who helps sort and distribute the food, said if the gardens are destroyed, there will be less food for the needy.

"I've seen people in here with children in their arms and they're in a rough spot, you can tell," she said.

Dunn, who planned to spend the night, said destroying a community garden defies rational behavior.

"Maine has a tradition of gardening," he said. "People in Maine garden to produce food to get through the winter. For them to do this in the middle of the harvest season is irrational. There can't be any pressing need."

Robert Marks, a lawyer representing Bellet and Frizzell, sent a letter to York, dated Aug. 2, saying if the Legion demolishes the garden and sheds, they will file a lawsuit against the Legion and all individuals involved "claiming breach of contract, destruction of personal property, trespass, intentional infliction of mental distress and harassment."

Amy Calder can be contacted at 861-9247 or at:

acalder@mainetoday.com

 

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