[Hpn] Pair fight to keep harvest for poor

chance martin streetsheet@sf-homeless-coalition.org
Mon, 11 Jun 2001 15:41:27 -0700


http://www0.mercurycenter.com:80/premium/local/docs/trees09.htm

Pair fight to keep harvest for poor

Published Saturday, June 9, 2001, in the San Jose Mercury News
BY ELISE BANDUCCI 

Mercury News 

For years, Margaret Davenport and Philip DiGiovanni grew vegetables and
fruits on the land behind their South San Jose homes and donated part of
their harvests to charity.

Now, the octogenarians are fighting the San Jose Scottish Rite Foundation,
which owns the property and was told by San Jose Code Enforcement to clean
up the area. But the foundation is going a step further and has begun to
clear the lot of every last almond tree and berry bush.

Davenport tends 20 to 25 fruit trees on the foundation's land and DiGiovanni
has six.

``I devoted my retirement to feeding the homeless,'' said Davenport, who
gives away anything she can't eat. ``I just feel devastated.''

Together Davenport and DiGiovanni -- who say they brokered a ``gentleman's
agreement'' to use the land at a time when a handshake sealed a deal -- have
put local officials in motion. They called their assemblyman, they called
the fire marshal and they called San Jose Code Enforcement.

The Scottish Rite says the area is a fire hazard that attracts squatters and
it is the foundation's responsibility to make sure it's safe.

Davenport and DiGiovanni agree that the weeds and shrubs should be cleared,
but they want the crops left alone, at least until all the fruit is ripe.

``We realize they own the property and they've been fair to us,'' said
DiGiovanni, 80. ``But we enjoy farming the area. ... It makes us feel good
to give.''

The residents may get the good vibes, but ``we have the liability,'' said
Leo Mark, chairman of the foundation's board. Besides, he wasn't a part of
the original land-sharing deal.

Several weeks ago, a small fire on the property prompted San Jose Code
Enforcement to order the foundation, a branch of the Masonic Order, to ``cut
and remove all overgrown weeds and vegetation.''

Mark says he believes the notice means ``everything that's green has got to
go.'' So the tree cutters moved in to clear the several acres.

But Davenport and DiGiovanni proved as stubborn as the roots.

Friday, code enforcement inspector Mike Tran said the notice didn't require
removal of the trees. He also ordered a halt to the clearing until he could
determine whether the almond, peach, plum and apricot trees were large
enough to require a permit to be cut down.

Later in the afternoon, he called the foundation, which houses its temple
just above the land, and said the trees could be removed without a permit.

So now that the foundation has the go-ahead to clear the area, the question
is, will it finish the job?

``Right now under the circumstances I will contact my lawyer and get his
advice,'' said Mark. ``I can't let my neighbors dictate what we're going to
do.''

Meanwhile, Davenport is scrambling to pick as many berries as possible
before the bushes are torn out and distribute the fruit to Martha's Kitchen
and Sacred Heart Community Service, both local charities.

``Look at all this good fruit ... all of it is on the ground,'' DiGiovanni
said, pointing to the still-green plums left behind when their tree was cut
down earlier Friday.

Mark says he is trying to be a good neighbor and even had his tree cutters
move Davenport's vegetable pots into her yard. ``I'm just trying to do the
best to comply with what the law says.''

------------------------------------------------------------------------
Contact Elise Banducci at ebanducci@sjmercury.com or (408) 920-5673.

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