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Not everyone is wild about wildflowers

It was a simple enough idea sparked by an article in the Audubon magazine: Why not grow wildflowers, a meadow in miniature, so to speak, in place of a front lawn? Yet when Stephen Kenney implemented the idea, it threw this working-class community into an uproar and set off a series of events that grabbed national and international headlines, principally in Europe but also in far-off New Zealand and the People's Republic of China. British viewers saw close-ups of this Buffalo suburb, Mr. Kenney, and what might be termed ``the lawn that dared to be different'' on BBC TV.

The episode began in the spring of 1984 when Mr. Kenney, a teaching assistant and doctoral student at the State University of New York, Buffalo, bought some wildflower seeds -- a ``meadow in a can,'' as the advertising had it -- and sowed them in his front yard. The mix included ox-eye daisies, black-eyed Susans, cone flowers, bachelor's buttons, and other flowers indigenous to the prairies.

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At the time, Mr. Kenney thought his meadow-type lawn might raise a few eyebrows but no more than that. Instead, it aroused dismay, quickly followed by indignation, when it was realized that the slender, quiet-spoken Mr. Kenney couldn't readily be dissuaded.

Victoria Boulevard where Stephen and his wife, Emelie, live is a pleasant though unpretentious street, despite its name. Trees shade the sidewalks and modest, tidy homes are packed elbow to elbow on each side. It is blue collar, for the most part, with established values and traditions -- and therein lies the rub. The Kenney yard does not fit the norm that dictates that front yards are for lawns, and lawns are meant to be mowed.

While Mr. Kenney enjoyed the meadow-type appearance, many others saw it in a much different light. In their view his yard could be summed up as ugly, depressing, and offensive to the neighborhood.

First reactions, however, came from those who appreciated the difference, the yard's free form, and particularly its overall colorful appearance. They would compliment Mr. Kenney as they walked by.

But far more neighbors saw things differently, among them Carmen Panaro, who lives two doors away. ``An unmowed lawn with a few flower seeds scattered in it isn't a wildflower garden. It's a mess,'' he insists. The whole yard, in his view, ``looks like an overgrown vacant lot in a blighted part of town. I know because I grew up in a poor neighborhood. Stand at the end of the street and you can see everyone else's lawn is neatly cut. His place spoils the whole street.''

Mr. Panaro moved here 30 years ago ``because this is a nice neighborhood, and I want it to stay that way.''

Jim Kiouses, another long-term Kenmore resident and next-door neighbor to the Kenneys, shares a similar concern. ``He [Kenney] has no respect for the neighborhood,'' he says. ``What would the place look like if everyone let his lawn grow this way?''

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Mr. Kiouses also says he feels more annoyed with the owner of the house the Kenneys are renting. The ``absentee landlord can order Kenney to cut his lawn.'' Mr. Kiouses, a United Automobile Workers member, hopes to retire and move to the country in the next few years. ``I'll be letting my house then and you can be sure whoever rents it will be told to keep the lawn trim!'' He also feels an unmowed lawn would lower property values in the neighborhood. Mr. Kenney counters that charge by pointing to a nearby house that sold for more money than the value placed on it by the realtors when the uproar over his front yard was at its height.

In the midst of all this controversy, Mr. Kenney was brought to the Kenmore Village Court and convicted of ``creating conditions hazardous to health,'' and fined $50 a day for every day the flowers remained standing. According to the court transcript, ``expert testimony'' indicated that the ``yard could be hazardous and harmful in that insects, rodents, and mice, and moles and rats could occupy the area and that dampness created by the overgrowth could be a breeding ground for many things undesirable.''

The expert who testified for the prosecution, James Hornung, has a degree in ornamental horticulture and runs Elbers Landscape Service in Buffalo. Ignored by the village court was the testimony of a biology professor from the State University of New York, Geneva, Dr. Herman Forest, who said that wildflower gardens do not attract rodents, and the testimony of botanist Bruce Kershner, a medical editor at the State University, Buffalo, who found Mr. Kenney's garden among the safest in the neighborhood. Mr. Kershner was able to show that the courthouse itself, with 13 species of somewhat toxic plants growing in its grounds, would have to be considered more dangerous.

Mr. Kenney appealed to the Erie County Court, and the judge has taken the appeal under advisement. At this writing a ruling was considered imminent.

Meanwhile the letters of support, ``between 300 and 400,'' according to Mr. Kenney, have come from people of diverse political persuasion, economic level, and age group. He explains that they are almost equally divided between those who are outraged by what they see as governmental interference in the life of an individual and those who give support for environmental reasons. The most touching of the letters, says Mr. Kenney, came hand-delivered with a bag of pennies (for the Kenney Defense Fund) collected by some children up the road. With childlike bluntness the letter stated: ``Dad says it [the yard] looks beautiful in the spring but in late summer it looks like hell. But it's still his property.''

In recent months, the Kenneys have been subjected to harassment, including threats to torch their house. Someone shot at the Kenneys' cat and felled a bird instead. And on another occasion a heavy vehicle was driven over part of their property. But the police have been very good about patrolling the area, Mr. Kenney says. ``They would far rather prevent a tragedy than investigate one after it has occurred.''

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