Going To Jail For Growing Veggies? What next?

Update 8/13/11:  Evidently, media attention and public opinion does have influence on a city’s prosecutorial discretion.  Following the international outcry stirred up by Ms. Bass’s blog and Facebook page, “Last month, City Prosecutor Eugene Lumberg dismissed the garden charges.”  Article from the Detroit News.  Good for the city of Oak Park.  I’m happy to see they could be reasonable. 

Bureaucracies are hardly famous for their flexibility and here’s a glowing example straight from the annals of the absurd:

Oak Park, Michigan Resident Julie Bass Faces 93 Days In Jail For Vegetable Garden

Evidently, Ms. Bass is being actively prosecuted for the crime of growing a vegetable patch in her front yard.  Not pot, mind you.  Not opium.  Not noxious weeds.  Her house isn’t sporting a dead lawn that she can’t afford to water.  She hasn’t piled up a rusting heap of garbage and she’s not parking her car in some rutted, dried mud just over the curb.  The woman is growing food, in attractive raised beds no less, but officials are digging in because veggies don’t conform to the city ordinance.  From The Huffington Post article;

“According to a local ABC affiliate, city code states that “all unpaved portions of the site shall be planted with grass or ground cover or shrubbery or other suitable live plant material.”

Now clearly, there’s a lot of wiggle room here.  “Suitable live plant material” is about as ambiguous as it gets but officials have nevertheless decided to take a hard line.  They want Ms. Bass’s yard to look like how other yards “commonly” (read traditionally) look.  They want grass, they want shrubs, and they want flowers.  Not this:

Julie Bass has taken her battle online, and now news outlets are picking up the story.  I’ve nosed around a little and am pretty sure that, with the widespread outrage brewing over the incident, the city of Oak Park has a PR nightmare on its hands.

Shall we count all the ways that pressing charges in this case is stupid, if not outright offensive?

1)  With food costs soaring, home vegetable gardens are now very common.

2)  With a growing concern about food safety, home vegetable gardens are now very common.

3)  With the growing obesity epidemic, growing a home vegetable garden is being encouraged at the highest levels of government.

4)  The White House has a vegetable patch in the middle of it’s lawn for godsakes.

5)  At a time when cities, counties, states, and federal governments are shutting down essential services and affected citizens are experiencing genuine suffering, wasting taxpayer money on a frivolous prosecution like this is repugnant.

6)  This prosecution diverts desperately needed resources away from real criminal activity.

7)  It limits the amount of land a family hit by the recession can utilize for growing food.

8)  With food stamp use at it’s highest rate in history, (think escalating budget deficit) being willing to prosecute someone for growing their own food actually creates a skewed incentive favoring food stamps over food production.

9)  Fill in the blank with your own favorite: ___________________________________

Oak Park officials?  Please.  Cultivate a little openess here.  Home gardens as a national activity have returned, and you need to incorporate that reality into your system of governance.  I suspect the city code you’re working off of was originally intended to protect the property values of your homeowners and that’s certainly a worthy goal.  Nobody wants to drive around their city and have it look like shit.  But if you think outside the box, I’m sure you can find a way to adapt your ordinance that would ensure any home garden sited in a front yard still meets required aesthetic standards.  That would preserve the original purpose of the code while allowing for the changing needs of a community struggling through difficult and changing times.

In the meantime, if anyone is interested in helping Ms. Bass out with her mounting legal fees, you can make a donation here: https://bitly.com/pPsDbe

copyright Dia Osborn 2011