‘I was just trying to do my job as a mother’

Beth Scarbrough and her son Cecil Scarbrough pictured here in portrait illustration Wednesday March 14, 2007. ME Online

Beth Scarbrough and her son Cecil Scarbrough pictured here in portrait illustration Wednesday March 14, 2007. ME Online

By Patrick Wade

Driving east on Hill Street, motorists see a blue two-story house. During the summer, much of the first story is obscured by bushy, 8-foot tall hedges.

Many passers-by might not even notice the house at first glance – unless the motorists are trying to turn left onto Prospect Avenue.

The City of Champaign received a complaint “a while ago” that the hedges at 401 N. Prospect Ave. were obstructing drivers’ lines of sight and making it difficult to turn left onto the busy street, said Susan Salzman, property maintenance supervisor for the city’s Neighborhood Services department.

However, the hedges protect the health of one of the house’s residents.

Beth and Cecil Scarbrough, the owners of the home, received a letter from the city on Feb. 20. In “an effort to keep the city safe, clean and attractive,” the letter read, the city ordered the Scarbroughs to cut their eight-foot hedges down to 24 inches, or be fined as much as $750 a day, beginning March 20. They could also be held liable for any car accidents that happened at the intersection.

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“We couldn’t live here without (the bushes),” Beth Scarbrough said.

Beth Scarbrough said the hedges are not an aesthetic feature. Rather, Beth and Cecil Scarbrough’s 8-year-old son, Cecil, has severe asthma, reactive airway disease and his lungs are three times the size of what they should be. Cecil needs the hedges surrounding the house to stay healthy.

According to a letter from Dr. Jack Thrasher, the family’s toxicologist, Cecil is at “high risk for developed blood cancers and neurological damage resulting in seizures.” He has been in and out of hospitals for a large part of his life.

Cecil’s illness severely restricts his activity. He is home schooled and is confined only to houses which have passed an air quality test. Additionally, he cannot swim in public pools because of the chlorine.

The Scarbroughs appealed the decision in late February. Wednesday, they received a call from Neighborhood Services who said a representative from the department would visit their house to review the case May 9, when the hedges are in full bloom. The threat of the fine is suspended until then, Salzman said.

Because of his condition, Cecil must live in a special house “protected from air pollution from cities and automobiles,” his mother said. In addition, he cannot live in close proximity to pesticides or herbicides. The hedges provide that protection from Prospect Avenue, and Scarbrough said they would not have bought the house if the hedges were not there.

“I had already compromised as much as I possibly could,” Scarbrough said. “We were getting pretty desperate after a year-and-a-half of no house.”

The Scarbroughs stayed with relatives in Homer, Ill., in August 2005 after losing their house in Seminary, Miss., to Hurricane Katrina. Before moving into their new home in Champaign in early February of this year, the Scarbroughs bounced around, spending some of that time with relatives at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

“We hated staying with anyone too long,” Scarbrough said. “It’s not like we’re bringing one or two people, we’re bringing seven people.”

The family even went back to Mississippi in October 2005 to try and live in their house, which had been severely damaged during the hurricane.

“We knew it was bad,” Scarbrough said. “But everything was bad.”

They did not know that black mold had set in. After living in the house for two days, Cecil ended up in the hospital in serious condition.

After Cecil was released from the hospital, the family tried staying in their daughter’s motor home.

“But then, (Cecil) kept getting sick,” Scarbrough said. “The Mississippi air quality was just too bad. The hurricane brought up a lot of stuff.”

The doctor treating Cecil at the time informed the family that it could be years before he could return to his home in Mississippi.

The family’s Mississippi home was called a “healthy house” and was specially built in 2000. To build a similar home in Champaign would cost the family $355,000.

“We just didn’t have that (money),” Scarbrough said. “So, we had to take an older home and make it into a healthy house.”

They found the home at 401 N. Prospect Ave. after a lengthy search. This home was the only one in the area that passed an air quality test, a test necessary to make sure the home is livable for their son.

After buying the house, the Scarbroughs spent about $50,000 modifying it to preserve Cecil’s health. The house needed special paint, plumbing redone, all the carpeting and gas appliances removed and a heavy-duty air filtering system installed.

They even moved the laundry room upstairs from the basement. If mortar dust from the basement’s brick walls got on Cecil’s clothes, it would be harmful to his health.

“It’s really not an option just to up and move again,” Scarbrough said. “We’re hoping to be here for a long time.” She added that if they are still ordered to cut the bushes down, they don’t have many options available.

Dist. 4 Council member Marci Dodds said that normally, the Neighborhood Services department is able to come to a compromise when they receive complaints like this.

Beth Scarbrough said she has been in contact with the previous owner of the home, and they received the same complaint in June 2004. The previous owner was allowed to keep the hedges up.

“Something must have gone horribly awry in the phone call between Ms. Scarbrough and Ms. Salzman,” Dodds said. “Usually the city will come out, look at it and then start working with the owner.

“When you’ve got a special case like the Scarbroughs’, it’s very rare that the city will be heavy fisted about it.”

Dodds added that the city only imposes heavy fines on residents who are repeat offenders, or if they are “completely intractable.” Most often, she said, city officials are very willing to work with the citizens.

“The people who work for the city are very aware that they work for the taxpayers,” Dodds said.

Scarbrough said that the phone conversation between her and Salzman “went downhill” after they could not initially come to a compromise.

“I think (Salzman) was probably having a bad day, and I was having a bad day,” Scarbrough said. “I understand she was just trying to do her job. I was just trying to do my job as a mother.”

Dodds said she believes this issue is solvable, and that there is a good chance both sides will be satisfied when it comes to its conclusion.

“Prospect Avenue is very busy and it’s one of the more narrow streets in town. There’s no denying that there is a safety factor here,” Dodds said. “There’s also no denying that, for the Scarbroughs, there is a safety factor for their child. I think that there are probably several solutions that can be found that will work for both of them.”

Dodds said she hopes that when the issue is resolved, the Scarbroughs and other residents will “feel the city will work with them and not just dictate to them.”

Scarbrough said that ultimately, they want to be good citizens and to be treated like everyone else in Champaign.

“I don’t want people thinking that we’re outsiders and we’re coming in here and we want all these special privileges,” Scarbrough said. “I just want a nice life with my children.”

Salzman said the case is on hold until May 9 when they can hopefully come to a compromise that will work for everybody.