New London man disputes blight violation for bamboo grove
New London — The man facing a criminal charge for what city officials say is his failure to maintain an unruly bamboo grove claims he is being unfairly targeted by the city and he is mounting a legal defense in Superior Court.
Carlos Carrion of 16 Borodell Place entered a not guilty plea last week in New London Superior Court to the city’s first blight-related criminal infraction under a newly revised blight ordinance. The ordinance allows for criminal penalties and fines when civil actions are exhausted.
City officials claim Carrion repeatedly refused to trim back his bamboo and clean up his property.
But Carrion’s attorney, former New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio, claims the city has not only overstepped its authority but also has tried to force Carrion to cut down a bamboo grove that does not violate the city’s property maintenance code.
After decades without a complaint, Finizio said the city suddenly took an unusual interest in Carrion and took the “extraordinary and extreme” steps of pursuing a civil case, filing a lawsuit over a past-due water bill and finally issuing him a criminal infraction.
"Mr. Carrion is a homeowner and taxpayer — a New Londoner. A Vietnam veteran gave him some bamboo for his home over 30 years ago. He has kept it in his memory,” Finizio said. “It seems inexplicable that suddenly Carlos Carrion, and his bamboo, have become public enemies No. 1 of the City of New London.”
Finizio said he will argue that Carrion’s constitutional rights were violated and that the city has demonstrated an abuse of power over an individual as officials tried to pressure him do something he is not legally required to do.
Carrion received his first warning notice from the city’s blight officer in January in response to a complaint that originated in the mayor’s office, records show. The warning and subsequent abatement order led to a violation notice with the city ordering him to clean his property, trim back the bamboo and its root systems from the perimeter of his property and weed out the dead stalks from the grove.
Carrion unsuccessfully argued his case before a blight hearing officer and was ordered to cut the bamboo from the perimeter of the property. Finizio said he had taken steps to comply with that order within 30 days when the city took the civil complaint to court, securing a $13,500 judgment last month that Finizio said Carrion was not even aware of.
Finizio said the city pursued a criminal route even as the civil proceeding was pending. He said the blight ordinance was designed to allow the city to either pursue a civil case or criminal case, not both.
Carrion’s towering bamboo grove covers most of his property. And while none of the city’s written orders dictate he cut down all of the bamboo, Finizio said that is exactly what Carrion believes the city, and now the state, is trying to force him to do.
The pressure being applied to Carrion has included a visit to the property by the city’s chief administrative officer, Steve Fields.
“My client also believes that as an outspoken critic of eminent domain during those public debates in our city, and because of his outspoken involvement in other city blight cases, that he is being targeted in a retributive way by the City of New London,” Finizio said.
City Blight Officer Kenyon Haye said the blight ordinance was designed to shift responsibility to the state in cases where the city had exhausted all attempts to force compliance. He said he was not involved with the state prosecution but said the city has never demanded the entire property be cleared.
The police incident report in the case shows Fields visited the property with Haye on July 19 to “plead with him to remove the bamboo and rubbish.” Fields, according to the report, offered to bring a Dumpster to assist him in the removal.
Finizio said he plans to argue his case to state prosecutors but is prepared to go to trial.
Passed in 2015 by the City Council, the city’s blight ordinance was based on one developed by the City of Groton and allows the state to levy its own fines and issue criminal infractions to violators.
The city can issue a civil penalty of $100 a day until the problem is fixed and under the criminal violation section of the ordinance, the state can fine a violator up to $250 a day.
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