Handling the authorities

August 1, 2011

You may have heard the uproar last month about Julie Bass, but if not, here's a summary: After the city tore out her lawn to upgrade her utilities, an American housewife decided to put in raised beds and make a vegetable garden.

After a warning, the city ticketed her for a misdemeanor punishable by 93 days in jail, citing an ordinance that required "suitable live plant marterial" in the front yard.

(You can read all about it here)

Faced with an international internet uproar, the city backed down, but has been ticketing Mrs. Bass for other "violations" (dog license which she claims was already paid, etc.) and generally harassing her ever since, which is what embarrassed bureaucrats tend to do.

So what's the lesson?

What I'm going to say might not be popular, but here it is:

Don't get the notice of the bureaucrats in the first place.

Here's what I mean. Look at the rest of her block:

(Credit: WJBK | myFOXDetroit.com)

And look at her home:

(Credit: WJBK | myFOXDetroit.com)

Honestly, I don't see this as edible landscaping. It may be "tidy" and may be food, but to me, it has no style. It doesn't fit the shape of her land, it doesn't match the house, and most of it is wood chips. It looks like something you'd see on a farm or in a back yard, not in front of a suburban home.

I wouldn't turn her in for it (I despise informants almost as much as I despise pettiness), but I wouldn't do that in my front yard. When compared to the rest of the block, it stands out in a bad way.

Doing something really different (which you have to admit edible landscaping is in some areas) AND standing out in a bad way is just asking for trouble.

Now, I don't have a problem with raised beds in the front yard. Obviously, I don't have a problem with growing food in the front yard, and I don't think (as has been implied) that this city even has a problem with that.

But what she's done is to remove most of the vegetation from her front yard and replace part of it with wood chips and the rest just has bare soil, which is the part (I think) that the city was objecting to.

I can imagine that some might ask: why not let the woman alone? She isn't doing anything wrong.

I totally agree! In a perfect world, people would be free to live any way they wanted. But this isn't a perfect world, and acknowledging that will make life much easier for you.

How can we avoid being involved in a similar controversy? Here's some ideas:

  1. Read your city/homeowners' association codes regarding front yards. I think if Mrs. Bass had read the code or talked to someone at city hall, this could have been avoided.

  2. If the codes forbid food growing in the front yard (which hers don't), either grow non-traditional food crops like daylilies (aka stealth edible landscaping), or get the codes changed with the help of your neighbors. Both is probably better.

  3. Make sure your neighbors are happy. Her neighbors claim they love it (on camera), but the city heard about this yard from someone, and most cities don't bother citing people unless they get complaints.

  4. If you get a warning (as she did), find out what you need to do to fix the problem. Then do it before it blows up on you!

    Assuming the city's issue was with the bare soil, simply laying down edging between the wood chips and the front part, then re-seeding the unused portion of her yard (or using an edible alternative such as thyme) would have solved the problem, and could have been done for less time, money, and energy than fighting city hall has cost her.

What do you think?

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