Heather Carmona knows dandelions are weeds, but this Birmingham parent prefers to see them as bright, natural spring blooms.
So she and her husband, Scott, don't use herbicides on their yard near Quarton Lake, and she's urging the city to limit spraying in parks.
Carmona, executive director of the Woodward Avenue Action Association, a regional economic development organization, last month started a "No Spray Birmingham" group on Facebook. She's also looking to distribute lawn signs and has spoken to a city department head, the parks manager and an advisory board on the subject.
"I'm already achieving some success," she said of the one-person crusade. "This is not about attacking the city, but about working with it in partnership."
Though the activity seems ideally timed for this Friday's 40th anniversary of Earth Day, that connection never clicked for the busy mom of a 2-year-old. "I didn't realize it was coming up," she said. Instead, the push came from seeing a chemical spray warning sign during a park visit with her daughter.
"How the heck do kids and dogs not run on the grass in a park?" Carmona, 41, asked late last month at her new Facebook page. "I'm not a crazy hippy or radical activist, but a mad and motivated mom who is tired of seeing way too many of these little white 'pesticide' signs near our parks and lawns. So I've decided to do something about it."
Presenting her case
What she also did was contact city officials, a familiar role for a professional whose career has involved grassroots activism and working with nonprofit organizations.
"A chemical-free environment is safer for all city residents," says a 17-slide presentation that may be shown to city commissioners. "When did dandelions become dangerous?" another slide asks.
Lauren Wood, director of the Department of Public Services, and Parks Manager Carrie Laird told Carmona the city doesn't spray all areas of its 21 parks and sometimes displays signs when nontoxic fertilizers — rather than herbicides — are applied. "They seem open-minded and willing to change," Carmona said.
"We feel the same way about safety," Wood said. "We are mindful of the health and welfare of the public. We respect the environment and do want to protect the waterways and children and pets.
"I applaud her efforts and will use it as a springboard to educate the public," she added.
But — and there's invariably one of those in public policy issues — Wood is caught between environmental purists and weed-haters. "Not spraying doesn't serve the interests of everyone," Wood said. "We get calls about dandelions, especially in high-visibility areas. People say things like, 'I don't pay taxes here to see fields of dandelions.' "
Tough balancing act
The director, who fields about a dozen such complaints each spring, said "They've gone down considerably because we're more proactive" about pre-emergent spraying to nip weeds before they bud. The city spends $2,500 or so each season on weed-killers "with low or no phosphorus," Wood said.
"I'm in the business of balancing public responses to do what's best for the community. We try to make everyone happy, but ..." she added, letting the thought dangle like a wisp of dandelion fluff.
Carmona, who also spoke to City Commissioner Mark Nickita and a Parks and Recreation Board advisory committee last week, believes the weed complaints come from "a vocal minority"—adding, "I can be a vocal minority, too."
The subcommittee invited her to suggest a spraying policy statement for a five-year parks master plan that commissioners will review this year. "I'll take a hard line and submit no-spraying language," Carmona vowed.
Nickita isn't ready to go that far, but he thinks Birmingham should "see what other communities are doing and whether other alternatives to spraying are out there." Several hours after talking with Carmona on Friday, he said any change should begin with a pilot test of a new weed-control approach in one park portion. "Then we could see whether it makes sense to adjust our standard practices."
With a master plan for parks nearing its final stages, Nickita said, "we should add green and eco-oriented practices as goals and concepts that express our principles for sustainability." He welcomes Carmona's role in sparking the discussion and her offer to contribute suggestions.
"Our community is blessed with motivated and intelligent people who want to get involved," he said, "and she's one of them."
'No such thing as safe pesticides'
Supporters include Julie Ann Wang, a Birmingham parent who's active in the Sierra Club chapter for four counties in southeast Michigan.
"I am behind Heather 100 percent," said Wang, the mother of a 10-year-old. "There is no such thing as safe pesticides. Documented studies show these toxins are linked to childhood cancer, leukemia, intellectual functioning and anxiety. We also know that they leach into our ground water, are toxic to birds, fish and bees."
Wang, who lives near Quarton Lake Park, noted that even families who avoid lawn chemicals at home can bring them inside their homes after park visits, "continuously exposing our children to dangerous levels. It is time to quit worrying about having artificial-looking lawns and begin caring about having a healthy world for our children."
That sensibility motivates Carmona as well.
"Since I've reached 40 and become a mom, I'm even more aware about being the best and healthiest I can be," she said at Booth Park while pushing her daughter in a swing. "I focus on things I can control, like health and making sure Hope (her daughter) doesn't walk on sprayed grass."
Roots of activism
Activism and nudging municipal bureaucracies isn't new for Carmona, who's in her 12th year as executive director of the Woodward Avenue Action Association. The Royal Oak nonprofit group receives support from businesses, foundations and governments to enhance economic development along M-1, such as listing "film-friendly" vendors and erecting 50 signs this spring that mark the historic byway as an "All-American Road." The association marks its 15th anniversary with an April 28 event at Detroit's Fox Theatre.
Carmona's lifelong sense of responsibility also stems from childhood lessons learned from her dad, a Detroit landlord, as they raked public areas around buildings he owned.
Now the Wayne State graduate, who earned a degree in marketing and public relations, envisions using campaign-style lawn signs to spread her green crusade beyond parks.
"I want to encourage homeowners to stop spraying, too," she said. "Probably half our neighbors spray."
In other words, 40 years after the birth of Earth Day, this mother of Hope has hope that change will sprout from three words: No Spray Birmingham.