Residents who keep organic gardens at a senior-living apartment complex say that attempts to subdue an invasive species with a banned pesticide has affected their nearby garden plots.
Karvis Lyn-Norton, is a resident of The Motherhouse at Baxter Woods, a Portland-based facility for residents 55 and up run by the property management company Avesta Housing. Like others at The Motherhouse, she keeps a vegetable garden in one of the community garden beds outside.
But those plots have been affected since early August, when a local landscaping company sprayed them with glyphosate, a synthetic pesticide. The company was hired by Avesta to deal with a large stand of Japanese knotweed outside the facility, Lyn-Norton said.
The application could be a violation of the city’s Land Care Ordinance, which regulates the use of pesticides. With other avid gardeners at the facility on her side, Lyn-Norton is speaking up against what she sees as mismanagement by Avesta Housing, who authorized the job.
“There’s no young people living here,” Lyn-Norton said. “So they think they’ll just push us around and they think we won’t do anything.”
The local landscaping company Seabreeze was contracted by Avesta to remove the Japanese knotweed at The Motherhouse on Aug. 2. Lyn-Norton recalls seeing the truck pull up to the Stevens Avenue complex with large tanks of a chemical product.
In an email acquired by The Phoenix, Avesta Housing staff told residents of the Motherhouse that Seabreeze went to the property to “get rid of the knotweed,” and that Seabreeze told Avesta they used glyphosate, a chemical found in the product Roundup, to do so.
Spraying synthetic pesticides, including glyphosate, is illegal in Portland due to the 2018 land care ordinance. Some exemptions allow for the use of specific pesticides: on harmful substances like poison ivy, for example, on invasive plants that lie on city property, or even on carpenter ants.
Within the limitations of the ordinance, a company would be able to use synthetic pesticides to remove an invasive plant species like the Japanese knotweed, as long as they get a waiver approved before doing so. Entities hoping to spray synthetic pesticides must apply for a waiver from a city committee, which currently consists of the city’s Sustainability Coordinator Troy Moon, and Avery Yale Kamila, a land-care professional and member of the city’s Land Management Advisory Committee.
Josh Ryan, the CEO of Seabreeze, told The Phoenix that the company hasn’t completed any waivers this year for pesticide spraying, and claimed that Seabreeze had only sprayed pesticides this year for the city — not for any property management companies.
Ryan confirmed that for weeds and invasive species, Seabreeze would use glyphosate. When told about the email from Avesta confirming the use of glyphosate products, Ryan said he needed to check to verify that any spraying took place. In a later email, a Seabreeze administrator said the company is “working with the Maine Board of Pesticide Control and are awaiting the results of their investigation.”
Sara Olson, a spokesperson from Avesta Housing, said that Avesta contracted Seabreeze at the request of a Motherhouse resident. Olson wrote that signage and permissions fall within the contractor’s purview, and added “we rely on Seabreeze’s expertise to know what is and what is not permitted.”
Moon, Portland’s Sustainability Coordinator, said the city hasn’t received any waiver applications this year. He said they would have entertained a waiver from either side, property management or the applicator.
“Generally, our main approach is to make sure people are aware of the ordinance,” Moon said, adding that it was “kind of a challenge” because the city doesn’t do proactive investigations.
Typically, applicators are in compliance with the ordinance, Moon said, though ensuring proper signage is something the city is still working on. He said the city hadn’t received any notice about the Motherhouse spraying until Sept. 26 through the SeeClickFix system, which he’s only now been able to look into after recently returning from vacation.
Entities that violate the ordinance, whether it be lack of waiver or something else, can be fined up to $500.
Jim Britt, communications director for the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, confirmed on behalf of the Board of Pesticides Control that they did receive the complaint and collected environmental samples.
“The investigation is currently ongoing,” he wrote in an email.
The incident has mobilized Lyn-Norton. She contacted the Maine State Board of Pesticide Control to conduct a soil test to determine whether glyphosate had contaminated her vegetable garden. Some had been contaminated, but the test results were not yet complete, she said. She was further frustrated by Avesta’s offer to her and other residents of a $25 gift card to compensate residents whose garden beds were affected by the incident, a gesture she found inadequate.
Her efforts have kept the incident in focus, and state and local officials have assured her they are looking into the situation.
Lyn-Norton had put a lot of time and effort into the herbs and vegetables that had sprouted in recent months, she said, adding that others at the facility had too. She put almost $300 into her personal garden over the summer; all organic, down to the soil.
“It’s my hobby,” Lyn-Norton said. “It was such a trauma when they did it, it’s been really horrifying to me.”