Michael Martin is used to getting compliments on the botanical bonanza he has cultivated, mulched and pampered along his leafy, residential lot on the Near West Side.
But one anonymous complaint set Madison's inspection apparatus in motion and kept Martin in thrall for two weeks, an experience that mustered supportive neighbors. It even resulted in a grudging friendship with a couple of the bureaucrats charged with following up building inspection complaints, 85 percent of which are anonymous.
Next to Martin's house at Ridge and Stevens streets, in the city's right of way, are five ornamental miniature trees, trimmed like a poodle's tail. There are delicate blackberry lilies, phlox, prairie grasses, hostas, irises, asters and others, all framed in a stone wall and edged in an undulating brick border.
In the 15 years he has worked on the garden, it has drawn frequent praise similar to this by neighbor Sherry Masters: "Mike's garden is a gift to the neighborhood, a treat for the eyes and for the senses."
Someone, however, apparently didn't like this gift, or Martin. The city's reaction to the anonymous complaint was to notify Martin two weeks ago that his garden is in the right of way and may block the view of cross traffic, requiring at least part of it be removed.
Martin, a graphic designer and cartoonist who works at Madison Area Technical College, was stunned. The garden is not exactly a neighborhood secret, nor are garden plantings along the street unusual.
Worried he would have to remove his garden, he created a Facebook page (83 "likes" as of Tuesday evening) and neighborhood fliers with requests to contact the city on his behalf. He faced a deadline for action of Monday, but the city extended that deadline and, after inspections, dropped the complaint altogether.
Though Martin didn't believe the garden violated sight-line requirements, he hustled to cut back his lilies to below the required two feet, move the taller prairie grasses and prune the trees.
"I know you can't just put any tree on city property," Martin acknowledged, "but I don't think visibility is an issue here. It's pretty easy to see under those trees."
Indeed, he was correct.
"I was OK with what was there," said city forester Marla Eddy, who stopped by for an inspection Friday and found no problems with the trees. (She ended up trading pruning secrets with Martin.)
Martin also reported pleasant interaction with Mark Winter, a city traffic engineer who turned up to check sight lines around and through the garden. Winter, too, signed off on Martin's garden, so long as it is well maintained.
Martin suspects the complaint came from a neighbor who "has not been very pleasant in the past."
Masters, the longtime neighbor who walks her poodle, Chauncy, by Martin's flowers, was contemplative.
"I know the city has to respond, and all this is complaint-driven, but they don't have to act on it," she said. "Too many people can use that as a way to get back at their neighbor. One anonymous complaint can be very manipulative."
Anonymous complaints make up 85 percent of those to the city's building inspection unit, which received the Martin complaint, inspector Marla Rauls estimated.
Eddy and Rauls both noted that complaints, even anonymous ones, serve a purpose in bringing potential safety problems to light. Tracking those complaints also gives the city staff an idea whether someone is actually a concerned resident or just trying to act out a grudge against a neighbor.
For Martin, the episode at first left him a little puzzled at the initial lack of information about what he needed to do, if anything, to comply. But it also got him to muster neighborhood admirers: "In the end, you look to your neighborhood for support first," he said.