It’s a weed that has left a developer tied up in legal knots.
In March, a young family won a judgment of more than $300,000 against a developer accused of spreading soil containing Japanese knotweed in the yard of their new Pepperell home in 2017. It was the first judgment of its kind in the state, according to their lawyer, John G. Mateus of Mateus Law in Woburn, and a June report in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly.
Developer Peter Cricones has filed an appeal.
“Our expert explained to us the only real way that you can assure yourself that you have no Japanese knotweed on your property is to dig down 6 to 10 feet, remove all the soil in the area, and then replace it with certified fresh soil,” Mateus said. “The estimate we got to do that work was between $140,000 and $180,000.” The owners also alleged that the dirt also was “filled with glass and other sharp, dangerous, and/or unsanitary objects, devaluing the property and also making the lawn/yard unsuitable for family use.”
“Cricones first sent a landscaping contractor to the property to try to pull out all the weeds,” Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly reported in June. “After that initial effort failed, he unsuccessfully tried using a Bobcat small tractor to excavate the knotweed.”
The developer did not respond to repeated requests for comment from the Globe.
According to the University of Massachusetts Amherst Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment, the plant’s rhizomes can spread underground up to 200 feet away.
Mateus said he’d never heard of Japanese knotweed before this case. “Now as I drive through towns, I’m seeing it along the Middlesex Fellsway,” he said. “I’m seeing it everywhere, and it doesn’t seem like much at first, but the roots go way down and it can grow higher than 6 feet.”
Stephen Marcus, a lawyer at Allcock Marcus in Braintree who is well-versed in condo law, called Japanese knotweed “the new radon.”
And it’s becoming an increasingly big problem in Massachusetts, according to Chris Polatin, restoration ecologist at Land Stewardship Inc. in Montague. He was the expert witness for the complaintants in the case Mateus tried. He said Japanese knotweed is primarily spread two ways: naturally via waterways and unnaturally by humans moving around dirt. A single knotweed rhizome the size of a human fingernail is all it takes to regenerate into a new plant, Polatin said.
“In Metrowest, where we’re seeing a lot of knotweed inquiries; dirt piles are being moved around all over the place and it’s unregulated,” he said. “That really needs to be looked at. That is the primary cause of knotweed dispersal in the human landscape.”
It can’t always be eliminated, but it can be managed.
Mitigation typically costs anywhere between $1,500 and $15,000, Polatin said. (The homeowners in Pepperell also were awarded attorneys fees, costs, and interest.) And while it is technically possible for knowledgeable homeowners to do it themselves, the hyper-controversial glyphosate used to kill the weed must be very carefully applied and will take out just about any plant it touches. And if the property is near water or wetlands? Forget about it.
Randy Prostak is a weed specialist in the College of Natural Sciences at UMass Amherst Extension. Prostak said people have become much more aware of invasive species in the past 20 years.
While knotweed can ruin a yard and even grow through a crack in a home’s foundation, he added, it doesn’t typically damage a modern building’s structure.
“You do see reports of it damaging older foundations in Europe and in the UK,” he said. “It’s difficult to get a mortgage on a property in the UK if Japanese knotweed is on that property.”
Like so many problems in life, he said, a homeowner’s best chance of successfully dealing with Japanese knotweed is catching it early.
“One of the things that we always preach with invasive species is early detection, rapid response,” he said. “As the invasion gets bigger, it becomes harder to control.”
To learn more about Japanese knotweed and other invasive plants, visit the Massachusetts Invasive Plant Advisory Group.