Marin County conflict pits butterfly enthusiast against neighbors

Marin County conflict pits butterfly enthusiast against neighbors

Monarch butterflies flutter frequently over a series of traffic islands at the entrance to the Pacheco Valle neighborhood in Novato. Some residents call it an ecological oasis, but others call it a fire risk.

Alameda del Prado, the route into the neighborhood, includes six median islands in the area. One and a half are maintained by Novato resident Marcia Basalla, whose planting and pruning work provides a breeding ground for the butterflies.

But the bustling habitat has become a target for neighbors who say it’s a visual blight and a potential danger because the plants could dry out and catch fire, blocking the only exit for the community of approximately 1,000 residents.

“They just continue to do these things below board. First it was aesthetics. Now it’s fire. All I care about is the plants and the animals,” Basalla said. “I feel strongly that I am doing the right thing. We are trying to take the planet in a good direction and what they are looking for is the conventional, the neat, the tidy.”

The median islands are city property. The vegetation on the islands managed by the FireWise committee includes shrubs like flax-leaved daphne and oleander, Chinese pistache trees, perennials and bunchgrasses. Many of the plants have been drastically pruned or were removed in a vegetation project in November.

Kay White, a member of the FireWise committee, said the North Bay wildfires of 2016 and 2017 motivated her to take a more active role in local fire safety and seek a more coordinated management of the islands.

The Friends of Pacheco Valle, a nonprofit founded by residents in 2021 to implement supplemental landscaping projects in the neighborhood, manages five of the six islands and has taken on the cost of landscaping. The group funded the construction of a cedar-trimmed gazebo with a fire-resistant roof on one of the islands.

“Mostly, it’s unsightly and it’s dry,” White said. “Really, it’s a conflict between one person’s priority for native plantings and a larger community concern for fire safety, for personal property and environmental concerns.”

The main island maintained by Basalla contains narrowleaf milkweed, verbena and western elderberry trees. These pollinator plants are considered flammable and a fire risk, but are fundamental for a thriving a monarch butterfly habitat.

Susan Holloway, an environmental activist in Marin, said that in late fall the monarchs migrate from inland California and other western states to sites along the Pacific coast. In the spring they head back east to mate. The population has dropped precipitously in recent years because of the replacement of milkweed with conventional landscaping plants.

“Median strips featuring a rich mixture of native plants will nurture the monarch as it crosses the county as well as thousands of other insects and animals,” she said. “These environments create corridors through which beautiful and essential creatures like the monarch can move, find food, and prosper.”

Michele Spremich, a landscape designer in Novato, said the area maintained by Basalla is essential for maintaining biodiversity.

“With the degradation of naturally occurring habitats, these ecosystems in developed areas, like Marcia’s garden, become more and more important, creating corridors for wildlife to move safely in-between Marin open space areas,” she said.

But the FireWise community has made many successful petitions to the city to curtail Basalla’s efforts. The city has approved a petition for the group to take over management of all of one of the islands Basalla tends.

“Our goal is for the islands to be beautifully maintained and welcoming for residents and visitors,” said Jeanne MacLeamy, a Friends of Pacheco Valle board member.

Officials said their primary concern with the road is evacuation safety.

“That is a one way in and one way out neighborhood,” said Lynne Osgood, a Novato Fire Protection District battalion chief. “We need to make sure that evacuation routes are not chock-filled with fire-prone vegetation and we need to make sure people can efficiently and fluidly evacuate as fast as possible.”

Rich Shortall, director of the nonprofit Fire Safe Marin, said he hasn’t been to the site, but noted that many one-lane roads in Novato have restraints because of native plant overgrowth due that could cause an blazing impediment in a wildfire.

“Public safety concerns have to trump everything else,” he said. “The islands can maybe be maintained in a different way, but are managed in a way that is evacuation safe. Let’s make sure that the islands don’t present a fire hazard and let’s make sensible choices about vegetation that’s planted in those areas.”