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Life and Death

The destruction of a "xeriyarden" leads to changes in how the city does business with its neighbors

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For nearly nine years, Colorado Springs gardener Claudia Verburg has been nurturing her babies -- her native flax, Mexican Hat, rose campion, wildflowers, miniature iris and daffodils, hyacinths, spiderworts, Perky Sue, asters, Siberian yarrow, Mountain Atlas daisies and a multitude of blooming cactuses.

The stunning half-acre xeriscape lawn/garden surrounding Verburg's home in the southeast part of town was a monument to the type of low-water, preservation efforts that the City of Colorado Springs heavily promotes.

On Monday, Dec. 4, Verburg came home to discover that without any warning, city street workers had destroyed a good portion of her popular landscape while remolding and rebuilding the sidewalk in front of her house to make it accessible to the handicapped.

First she cried. Then, her hands shaking, Verburg fired off an e-mail complaint to the mayor and all eight members of the City Council.


Pride of the neighborhood

"I am so angry and upset that I can barely type this," Verburg wrote. "I have lived at the above address since June of 1992. I have spent thousands of hours and thousands and thousands of dollars on my yarden. I love and treasure each and every plant in it.

"Today the city came, with absolutely no notification to me, tore out the sidewalk and dug up over [65] square feet of plants (estimated worth $500-plus) -- specialty cactus and succulents, rare and expensive bulbs and perennials. I have spent several years nursing one particular cactus and finally, finally! this past year it 'took' and flourished. Now it's gone.

"My yarden is the pride and joy of the neighborhood. People come by every few weeks to see what's blooming ... parents bring their children to look at the pretty flowers ... cab drivers bring their fares by ... we've even had a tour bus! It does not take a rocket scientist to see that this is not a standard turf yard.

"What kind of savages are you people??? And what kind of savages do you employ??? Could you not have given me some notice so that I could have removed these expensive and treasured plants and placed them somewhere else??? Whoever did this did not even have the common sense to leave the soil so I could pick through it and salvage my plants.

"Is this standard procedure to destroy property with absolutely no notification to the home owners, tax payers and voters?"


Council cares

Verburg's e-mail was dated the same day that Colorado Springs was awarded a second place award in an international Cities in Bloom Competition. The international environmental award -- nicknamed the Green Oscar -- is sponsored by Nations in Bloom, a British nonprofit organization founded in 1966.

Last month, Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace and Parks and Recreation director Paul Butcher traveled to the nation's capitol to deliver a presentation declaring to the voting committee the city's strong commitment to environmental and preservation practices.

Butcher said that particular emphasis was placed on the city's commitment to planting trees and flowers, and on the city's xeriscaping program which sends a strong message that citizens and developers should voluntarily landscape properties with vegetation that requires little water.

When they received Verburg's complaint, several members of the City Council reacted with dismay. In a flurry of e-mail messages, Councilors Bill Guman, Ted Eastburn and Judy Noyes sent their condolences to Verburg and vowed to press for answers.

The three councilors indicated they planned to forward the complaint to the appropriate staff for a complete investigation. "Sorry ... I've never been regarded as a 'savage' by anyone," wrote Guman.

Both Eastburn and Noyes indicated their hope that the city would never repeat the mistake.

"I cannot imagine why this wholesale destruction took place," Noyes wrote. "I'm so sorry. I would be sick if this happened to me -- and very angry. I hope it is some comfort for you to know that Council cares."


Chucking 'em up

Verburg said two weeks ago, she and her husband noticed that the city appeared to be gearing up to work on a street project in front of her house. But because there were no markings on the sidewalks or her property, she figured that the work would be in the street.

And, she said, she specifically looked to see if the city had left a notice on her door alerting her that they planned to do work that might impact her property. There was none.

"The next day, my husband, who gets home from work before I do, called me at work and said, 'I don't know how to tell you this, but a good portion of the cactus bed is gone'," Verburg said.

Verburg initially estimated 35 square feet of her beloved garden had been torn up and hauled away. After a closer inspection, she realized the extent of the damage was at least twice that size. In all, Verburg estimates at least 150 mature plants, bulbs and cactuses were destroyed.

In addition, workers had taken about 20 large rocks from the garden and threw them on top of delicate cactus and other plants, likely destroying them in the sub-zero temperatures.

"They just chucked 'em up there," Verburg said. "I was so upset I actually weighed one and it weighed 25 pounds."

If she had been notified in advance, Verberg pointed out, she could have spent the previous weekend removing and repotting her precious plants so she could replant them later.


Overnight changes

When she first discovered the damage, Verburg was directed to Gary Knopp, a maintenance and construction supervisor with the city, who was supervisor of the project. Knopp initially offered no apology, she said.

"Actually, at first he was kind of cranky; his initial response was 'what kind of a problem do you have with a wheelchair ramp?' " Verburg said. "I said, 'I have no problem with wheelchair ramping, but where are my plants? I want to know where my little plants are.'

"I have no problem with them accessing my right of way, but I just don't agree with them coming and carting off my property. The city took my property, which was alive, hauled it off and destroyed it."

This Tuesday, more than a week after the damage was reported, Councilman Eastburn said he was still waiting for an explanation from the city's staff.

"What happened to her sounds dreadful," Eastburn said. "I'm willing to wait to see what staff has to say, but this raises the general issue of, 'how do we notify the property owners?' We need to take a look at this process and procedure."

Also on Tuesday, Knopp did not return several telephone messages from the Independent.

However, city director of transportation Dave Zelenok, promised to investigate. "I'm surprised if there was no notification, and I will certainly look into that," Zelenok said on Tuesday afternoon. "We do pride ourselves on working with the neighbors. It just makes good sense that we notify them."

The following morning, Wednesday, Dec. 13, Knopp's immediate supervisor, street division unit manager Saleem Khattak, vowed that Verburg will be reimbursed for the full amount of the estimated damage to her garden, a cost she is continuing to try to determine.

In the past, notification to property owners that the city plans to replace sidewalks that may impact their immediate property has been informal and non-binding.

However, Khattak said, from now on, the city will formally notify all impacted property owners when proceeding with curb and gutter projects.

Still, Verburg said she and her neighbors can't help but wonder how much her zip code has to do with the fact that she was not notified before the work began, and the demise of her garden cemented.

Verburg lives on the city's southeast side, which has gotten an unfair bad rap for being the alleged "bad part of town," she ruefully notes.

"Do city employees operate this way in Broadmoor neighborhoods, or in Briargate?' she wondered. "Would they go into one of those neighborhoods and remove 65 square feet of landscaping?"

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