A city government in Florida has used a zoning ordinance to force a couple to remove their organic vegetable garden – one that they’ve had for 17 years.
Hermine Ricketts and her husband Tom Carroll had to tear out the vegetable garden they’ve grown for 17 years in order to avoid a $50-a-day fine.
“We are already feeling the impact of shopping for overpriced organic food,” Ricketts told The Miami Herald. Ricketts said it had been years since she had shopped for vegetables at the supermarket.
Officials with the Miami Shores village government ordered the garden removed because it was in the wrong place — the front yard. The well-maintained and manicured garden, though, had been there for 17 years and was allowed until the city changed the rules in May, making it clear vegetable gardens were banned. That’s also when a village inspector handed Carroll and Ricketts an order to remove the garden by Aug. 31.
Vegetable gardens in front yards are prohibited for “aesthetic reasons” in Miami Shores. The logic behind this code is that the presence of vegetable gardens in plain sight drives down property values. Fruit and flowers in the front yard are permitted.
Suing for the right to use their own property
Ricketts and Carroll have filed a lawsuit designed to overturn the zoning regulation with the help of The Institute for Justice. The lawsuit is part of the Institute’s National Food Freedom Initiative, which is designed to overturn regulations that limit small scale food production.
The couple’s contention is that the Miami Shores zoning regulations violate the Florida state Constitution. The constitution gives state residents the right to “acquire, possess, and protect” property.
“The right to grow and harvest your own food on your very own property is certainly part of that right to acquire, possess and protect property,” Ari Bargil, an attorney for the Institute, told The Miami Herald.
Challenging such aesthetic regulations can be an uphill battle. The Herald noted that Florida’s state Courts actually upheld a Coral Gables zoning regulation that banned homeowners from parking pickup trucks in their driveways. Voters later overturned that law.
Fined $500 a day for growing a vegetable garden
Ricketts and Carroll were fortunate compared to Jennifer and Jason Helvenston of Orlando. The Orlando city government tried to fine them $500 a day in an attempt to get them to tear out their front-yard garden and put in a lawn.
Organized public opposition spearheaded by a gardener army eventually forced the city to back down and change the ordinance. Protestors marched on city hall and members of the gardener army planted radishes in their front yards to back the couple.
Even that victory was almost a hollow one. The Orlando city planner’s office presented the Municipal Planning Board with a draft ordinance that would have allowed property owners to use just 25 percent of their front yard as a garden. The ordinance was eventually changed to allow residences to use 60 percent of their front yards as gardens.
“I worry that we’re over-complicating the matter a little bit for a vegetable garden,” Planning Board Member Karen Anderson told The Orlando Sentinel.
Interestingly enough, Orlando’s own city attorneys eventually decided that the zoning ordinances were too vague to be enforceable. The fines against the Helvenstons were dropped because they might not have held up in court.
Protecting your right to garden
It is actually much easier to run afoul of zoning laws than many people think. A big problem is that zoning regulations are often very selectively enforced. In many cities, officials only cite violations when somebody complains. In other communities zoning regulations are only enforced in certain neighborhoods.
So what should you do if city officials try to make you remove a garden? Well there are several steps that you can take. The simplest and cheapest is to simply approach elected officials directly.
Another step you can take is to go local council or board meetings and complain directly. City councils and county boards hold regular meetings and most of them allow time for public comment. Officials will listen because they want your vote.
If that doesn’t work you can contact the media, local gardening groups and organizations like the Institute for Justice. The city government in Orlando eventually backed down because of the public pressure that the Helvenstons brought to bear upon it.
The right to use your property is just like any other right. If you want to keep it, you have to be prepared to fight for it.