In Defense of the Town That’d Jail a Woman for Her Garden

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The controversy over the woman facing jail time for planting a garden in her front yard hasn’t exactly been good PR for Oak Park, Mich., the city arguing that its codes ban the garden—and stipulate the possibility of 90+ days incarceration to residents flouting the rules. Now, someone closely affiliated with Oak Park has come to its defense, stating that, among other things, residents are attracted to the the city for its “pleasant uniformity,” and that the local nickname is “The Family City” not “The City That Hates Vegetables.”

I’d sorta love to see that logo on a billboard, though.

Jessica Newman, a recent law school grad and former Oak Park resident who happens to be the daughter of the city’s director of public information, sent us an essay defending Oak Park’s actions. It is printed below in its entirety.

(MORE: Front Yard Garden Controversy Revelation: Lawns Are Useless)

Food Politics: In Defense of a “Draconian” City Ordinance
By Jessica Newman

Oak Park is a small, middle class city of about 29,000 residents. A drive through the community reveals neat lawns encompassing compact tract homes painted in a limited palette of hues—brown, grey, black, red, and green. “The Family City,” as Oak Park has been officially known since the 1950s, does not attempt to hide its roots in the suburban sprawl boom of the post World War II era, and a drive down the same streets 50 years ago would likely look much the same. The pleasant uniformity of paved streets, kempt lawns, and tamed shrubbery, in addition to affordable home prices, are just some of the features that attract residents to the city.

In an effort to preserve this deeply prized suburban aesthetic, Oak Park, like most planned communities, adopted a set of ordinances aimed at limiting changes residents could make to their façades and yards. One of these ordinances provides that any vegetation planted in the front of the home must be “suitable” for a front yard. For the past 66 years, the community’s residents have interpreted “suitable” to mean standard shrubbery, grass, and the occasional flower garden; inoffensive and conventional to be sure, but the reigning preference among Oak Park’s citizens nonetheless.

When Julie Bass was forced to re-landscape her front lawn after some necessary maintenance work, she decided against the sod and shrubbery route, and opted for a less traditional option—a vegetable garden comprised of four raised beds, surrounded by hay, taking up the entirety of her front yard.

Before building the beds, Bass did her due diligence and checked with the city planner for his approval of the project. After she described her vision, and explained her purpose, the city explained that such a project would be against code, and advised her not to proceed. Mrs. Bass would not be swayed, however, and went ahead with her mission undaunted. Following the project’s completion, neighbors complained about Mrs. Bass’ unconventional plantings. The city investigated, and the beds were found to be against ordinance just as Mrs. Bass had been informed they would be. A warning was issued, which was ignored, and this was followed by issuance of a formal citation.

When it was clear the Bass family was not going to remove the raised beds as they had been asked to do, a violation was charged. This apparently got Mrs. Bass’s blood boiling. No doubt she was proud of her efforts and pleased with the success of her DIY project; and perhaps it was a lovely teaching opportunity for her children. But she acted with intentional disregard of her knowledge that the project had been deemed inappropriate for the front yard of her home, and she was on notice that she would be called to account for her actions.

Passionate, involved citizens are critical to strong government, especially at the local level, and if the Basses were truly offended by the city’s interpretation of the ordinance, they had every right to take a very simple action and challenge its application before defying the code as written. Instead, Mrs. Bass proceeded against the city’s advice and then became frustrated when held accountable.

That reasonable minds will differ as to the precise definition of what is considered aesthetically pleasing is a perfectly valid assertion; beauty is an inherently subjective concept. But the city is equally valid in taking action to implement the standards set by its citizens, and to take reasonable action to preserve the character of their community as it has endured for the last 66 years.

Drive through virtually any planned community in America and you will see a plethora of nearly identical ordinances at work, designed to keep neighbors from building swing-sets and garden mazes on their front lawns. These may very well be lovely lawn ornaments, and even appreciated design by many, but the average citizen would prefer to see such décor contained to the back yard.

If the majority of Oak Park’s citizens disagree with the code, and wish to see a cucumber in every yard, it is well within the citizenry’s power to demand the ordinance be updated or changed. Oak Park city officials would welcome such a request. However, fundamentally mischaracterizing the thoroughly lawful and reasonable actions of the city’s employees to the point of encouraging ongoing harassment of these employees is plain irresponsible. Simply because the Basses were irritated with the application of city code to their particular use of the land does not mean that the city employees enforcing the provision are power hungry, irrational bureaucrats worthy of verbal abuse and anonymous threats.

(MORE: Woman Faces Jail Time for Planting Organic Vegetable Garden)