HENRICO COUNTY, Va. (WTVR) – For years, Jocelyn Senn worried about pesticide and fertilizer runoff into her well and algae-plagued pond overlooking the James River off Osborne Turnpike in far eastern Henrico County.
So when the six acres of longtime farmland just up the lane from her home came up for sale, she jumped on it.
“I bought it to stop the farming and turn it into a habitat because I feel like all of our wildlife is being squeezed out,” she said as she stood on her beloved acreage, much of it recently bush hogged by the county because it violated its tall-grass ordinance.
Her natural wildlife habitat was a long process that involved the state forestry department and the department of Games and Inland Fisheries, where she registered her acres with the Habitat at Home program. That got her a “certified wildlife habitat” sign from the National Wildlife Federation, which stated “this property provides the four basic habitat elements needed for wildlife to thrive: food, water, cover and places to raise young.”
She posted that on Osborne Turnpike, and kept a fairly wide strip of grass mowed between the road and her field orchestrated by Mother Nature.
This is a picturesque section of the county, widely used to bicyclists, sightseers and nature-lovers. Many residents have been fighting mightily planned housing developments that would transform this rural hideaway just 15 or 20 minutes from downtown.
The seasons came and went as Senn’s refuge grew. This summer it had wildflowers and lots of butterflies. It was taller than head high in places, with seedling trees gaining momentum among many species of weeds and other naturally occurring plants that hid wide varieties of birds, small mammals and other critters.
Senn admits it has looked a little raw at times. “I kind of look at it like a haircut. Sometimes when you get your hair cut, you know, it goes through that ugly stage, but then it gets pretty. It’s going to have that place where it’s not beautiful, but it will become a gorgeous forest.”
Not now, she pointed out. Nearly all the naturally occurring seedlings were mowed down.
She had correspondence from the forestry department about how to “afforest” – establishing a forest – on her particular parcel. The first option listed: “The least expensive way to afforest this site is would be to allow tree species to naturally seed into the open area . . . “
Other quicker and surer options were planting loblolly evergreen seedlings and – much more expensively – hardwoods.
She chose the natural route. “It was the least expensive thing to do, and it was the best thing.”
But this piece of rural real estate isn’t under the control of the state forestry or game departments.
It’s in Henrico County and it was in violation of the 12-inch limit on grass and weeds. You can grow crops and trees, but not just let Mother Nature run wild on your land, explained Mark Strickler, Henrico’s director of Community Revitalization.
“Essentially, everybody would say that (who) doesn’t want to cut their grass – that they’re just letting it go natural,” Strickler said. That would effectively kill their ordinance.
He said they had communications with Senn about the property, telling her the best habitat plan that wouldn’t violate the ordinance would be for her to clear the land and plant the trees and shrubs she wanted for her habitat. Strickler said they had been trying to get her to deal with the problem long before the bush hog arrived.
It’s unclear if Senn will be charged for the cost of the mowing, which was interrupted when she came home and confronted the contractor doing the cutting.
She still has two narrow strips of her habitat standing scarecrow-like above the scalped fields.
Senn is plenty upset. Not only was the property more healthy and attractive before the mowing, she said, it was done on the exact same day – October 30th – that the county hosted its “Henricopolis Soil and Water Conservation District annual landowner’s meeting” about “establishing native grass, shrub and wildflower plots for habitat management.”
“I got home and literally there were animals just running in every direction and just terrified their homes had all been destroyed,” she recalled.
“There was nothing I could do about it but just – literally – sit down on the ground and cry.”