A friend came to me last week with a problem.
She belongs to a church that neighbors a low-income apartment complex. The church has a significant amount of vacant land, just growing grass.
She had the idea of starting a community garden. The produce could be used to help the church's neighbors with healthy, affordable vegetables, and tending the garden would give church teens a youth program that's more active than sitting in a classroom.
My friend has some excellent models to follow. Rufus and Demalda Newsome have started several community gardens around north Tulsa, including one at Alcott Elementary School. Restore Tulsa has a community garden in Brady Heights, and they've involved students from nearby Emerson Elementary in tending it. Global Gardens has established school gardens at Eugene Field Elementary in west Tulsa and Union's Rosa Parks Elementary in east Tulsa. So far, every garden has been a hit with students and neighbors alike.
So what's the problem? My friend was told that the church would have to get a special exception to have a community garden on its property, and the application would cost $750. (That turns out not to be the case, for churches anyway, as you'll see.)
My first thought was a variation on the notion that it's easier to ask forgiveness than permission. No one was likely to complain about a well-tended garden. If someone does complain, that's when you pay your fee and get your special zoning permission.
(Neighborhood advocates tell me that this approach works very well for developers who feel that the conditions tied to approval of their Planned Unit Development (PUD) zoning are too constraining.)
It bugged me to think that you'd need special permission to plant a community garden. As a homeowner, I don't need any special permits to grow vegetables -- at least as far as I know. Why should it be any different for a private organization to plant a garden on its own property?
The zoning code (Title 42, which is not-so-coincidentally the answer to the ultimate question of Life, the Universe, and Everything) lists planting and cultivating as "area-wide uses by right." That means those activities are permitted everywhere -- no need to seek special permission.
But there seems to be some ambiguity about the matter, particularly if the garden is on a lot by itself, rather than an "accessory use" next to a school or church.
According to a September 11, 2008, letter from Frazier Henke, chairman of the City Board of Adjustment, to Mayor Kathy Taylor, "Community gardens are already permitted on publicly owned property (i.e. parks) as well as accessory uses to community facilities (i.e. schools, community centers, and churches) and as commercial uses in commercial districts; however, they are not permitted as independent uses on privately owned parcels in residentially zoned neighborhoods."
So to eliminate any confusion that might hinder people from putting in a patch of community carrots, there's a proposal to amend the zoning code to define what a community garden is, establish it as an area-wide use by right, and put a few regulations in place.
The amendment been approved by the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission (TMAPC) and is now before the City Council. The proposal has received enthusiastic public support, with two notable exceptions: City Councilors Jack Henderson from District 1 and David Patrick from District 3.
However oddly they've expressed their concerns, I suspect that this is their core worry: Unscrupulous property owners will allow their lots to get overgrown and will delay abatement proceedings by claiming that it's a community garden. Or a well-meaning group will start a community garden but lack the resources to keep them up. Either way, one of their neighborhoods would end up with an eyesore that could harbor disease-carrying vermin.
This possibility must seem very strange to highly-paid editorial writers who live in neighborhoods where homeowners have the financial resources and the motivation (peer pressure and pride of ownership) to keep their lawns not only mowed, but edged and free of dandelions and henbit.
But there are neighborhoods in our fair city where some owners don't care about the condition of the lawns they own because they don't even live here, while other owners and residents do care but lack the resources for upkeep.
Between them, Councilors Henderson and Patrick represent nearly all of Tulsa north of I-244. I don't have demographic stats at my fingertips, but it's my guess that north Tulsa has lower household incomes, more rental housing, and more absentee ownership than other parts of the city. In years past, councilors from these districts have made several efforts to deal with the problem of neglected properties with absentee landlords.
But the solution isn't to ban community gardens but to beef up neighborhood inspections, so that eyesores and health hazards can be dealt with in a timely fashion. Additional inspectors might generate enough additional revenue to cover the most of the additional cost, making our city a cleaner, tidier place in the process.
There are already laws on the books to deal with such problems: Tulsa's nuisance code (Title 24) bans vegetation that's more than a foot tall, unless its "healthy trees, shrubs, or produce for human consumption grown in a tended and cultivated garden."
Community gardens won't make the problem of negligent property owners any worse. The proposed ordinance reprises the nuisance ordinance with a ban on "high grass, weeds, or other debris."
That's one of several "use conditions" on community gardens which are already covered by city ordinances.
Condition 2 bans mechanical equipment that creates "offensive noise, dust, odor, or electrical disturbance," already banned by the nuisance code.
Condition 5 requires that buildings and signs "comply with requirements of the underlying zoning district," which is like passing a law that says people are required to obey the law.
Conditions 6 and 7 -- "Only [those] authorized by the property owner shall participate in the community garden.... Cultivated areas shall be prevented from encroaching onto adjacent properties" -- are adequately covered by trespassing laws.
These redundant conditions add no protection against irresponsible gardeners. They appear to have been included as a security blanket to soothe a few worrywarts.
Other conditions are more troublesome. The proposal would prohibit gardening after 30 minutes past sunset. Gardening by moonlight or streetlight is the only way to go in the hot Oklahoma summer. As long as the gardeners aren't violating the noise ordinance, what does it matter if people are gardening after sunset on what is, after all, private property?
The requirement to get a special exception for on-site sales is a problem, too. Part of the value of a community garden is making locally grown produce directly available to people who live nearby, without adding in the costs of transportation or wholesaling. A $750 application fee for a special exception adds cost that has to be passed on to the customers.
Alternatively, you could sell your garden's produce at a farmer's market, but then you have to drive there to deliver the produce, you have to rent a booth, and your neighborhood customers have to drive there, too.
A little booth selling only the produce grown in the garden is not going to be a neighborhood nuisance. It would be an attraction, a point of interest, a reason for neighbors to congregate and get to know one another. Our city ordinances shouldn't discourage that from happening.
Community gardens are a wonderful idea. I hope the ordinance is approved and the idea spreads to neighborhoods all over the city.
But the fact that we need an ordinance at all to allow a property owner to plant a garden on his own property illustrates once more how broken Tulsa's zoning code is. It makes it too easy to build places that diminish our city's history, beauty, and uniqueness, "protecting" us against land uses that would actually improve our health, safety, and quality of life.
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