Big stink: Is it compost-- or garbage?

In Charlottesville's comprehensive plan, Woolen Mills residents say they want to preserve their neighborhood's rural ambiance.

But when Louis Schultz tries to get away with countrified things on his 1.5 acres, his neighbors reach for the phone.

This year, five neighbors have made six complaints, according to city code official Jerry Tomlin.

On November 26, Schultz was busted for his brush piles, and one of two piles was removed by a city-authorized crew. His compost pile is still in the city's sights.

"I love my brush piles," says Schultz. "I have sunken areas, and I use them to fill in the low areas."

On November 5, the city cited Schultz and gave him 10 days to remove his brush piles and compost. Schultz charges that the citation allows no appeal process.

"That's not true," Tomlin counters. "He was notified November 5, but he didn't come in until November 24," the day the city took action by hauling away one of the piles.

"We certainly would have worked with him if he'd asked for an extension," says Tomlin. And he notes that some of the complaints stem from this past summer. "We've made concessions to him," Tomlin says.

Schultz claims he's been told compost piles containing vegetable matter are illegal in Charlottesville, and he refers to City Code section 5-148: "Unlawful accumulations of garbage, refuse, etc."

"We do not define compost at all," says Tomlin. "We do address rubbish that attracts rodents. That's a violation of the trash ordinance."

There's some debate about whether Schultz's pile of rotting grapefruit rinds and eggshells is in fact a compost pile. Another Woolen Mills resident, Kevin "Compost Is My Life" Cox, at first thought Schultz was being unfairly picked on by the city. Then he saw a photograph of Schultz's kitchen debris.

"Just dumping food on the ground does not make a compost pile," he says. "It makes a garbage pile. It's guaranteed to attract possums and rats. I'm not interested in preserving a habitat for rats."

Cox compares Schultz's mound to his own steaming pile. "When you get it nice and hot like that, ain't no rat going in there," says Cox. "If that's what [Schultz] thinks composting is, then go get him, Jerry Tomlin. He gives us all a bad name."

But Schultz has a defender in nature expert Marlene Condon. "Garbage is what you use to make compost. It's decomposed vegetable matter," she says.

Condon does note the presence of eggshells in Schultz's compost, and suggests he stick to vegetable matter. But she calls fears the pile will attract rats "overblown" and says, "It's probably not really a factor in increasing the rat population."

Condon also blasts regulations based on "aesthetics" that prohibit brush piles and Schultz's compost efforts. "There's no biological basis for these codes," she says. "They should be changed. They're not based on practices that are good for the environment."

"Nature is inherently messy," observes John Hermsmeier, director of the Environmental Education Center. He says Schultz's situation illustrates the conflict between sound environmental practices and aesthetic and public health concerns.

"Any municipality should have policies that encourage residents to act in an environmentally sound way," he says.

Schultz has another gripe about city practices. He's irked by city personnel "snooping" around in private yards.

Tomlin defends the practice by noting that both city and state codes authorize such investigations (Charlottesville does about 7,000 a year).

"If a neighbor says there's 15 bags of garbage, and I see rats, I'm going to go in," Tomlin says. But he says he'd never do that without reasonable cause, and if he suspects rotting garbage inside a house, he has to get a search warrant.

This is not the first time Schultz has run afoul of city regulations. Two years ago, he was cited for not mowing "weeds and vegetation in excess of 18 inches." Schultz prefers to call the growth "native plants."

He's also been cited for having an inoperable vehicle that wasn't screened, as required by the "storage of inoperable vehicles" code.

The city hasn't towed that vehicle "yet," notes Tomlin, who points out that the violation is a class 1 misdemeanor with a fine of up to $2,500, plus the cost of the tow.

Schultz took his case to City Council December 1. He wants his brush pile back, and he wants to be left alone to do what he considers sustainable gardening on his property. "I will not stop until both of those goals have been achieved," he told councilors.

What the city will do about Schultz's second brush pile and compost is still pending, says Tomlin.

The city had to hire a contractor to remove the brush pile, and that $95 bill plus a $75 administrative fee will be added to Schultz's tax bill.

Should Schultz refuse to pay, he could be taken to court. Has anyone ever gone to jail for violating city nuisance codes?

"I've done this for 30 years," says Tomlin. "I've only seen one person go to jail, and that was for total contempt of court."

Louis Schultz thinks he should be allowed to compost as he sees fit.