Illegal Front Yard Vegetable Garden Dispute Heard by Orlando Planning Board

Orlando couple continues to battle the City over their right to grow food, with potential $500 per day fines.
By Bob Ewing
01/18/2013
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Jason and Jennifer Helvenston battle the City of Orlando to keep their front yard vegetable garden. The City has asked them to remove the garden for aesthetic reasons.
Photo by David Yener Goodman
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Should an Orlando couple be forced to uproot and destroy half of their front-yard vegetable garden—or else risk violating the city’s proposed new zoning code?  

That is the recommendation made Jan. 15, 2013, by Orlando’s Municipal Planning Board, despite considerable media attention and growing national support for organic farmers Jason and Jennifer Helvenston. The couple vow to protest the proposed ordinance by continuing to peacefully grow their own food in their front yard vegetable garden. Last week the Helvenstons launched “Plant a Seed, Change the Law,” encouraging residents across Orlando and the country to join them in planting a “Patriot Garden” in their own front yards. Over 1,000 people have committed to participating. Visit the Helvenston's blog at PatriotGardens.Blogspot.com for more information and to sign a petition telling Orlando to stop digging up "illegal" gardens.

Yet today the Orlando Planning Board voted to recommend that the City Council adopt an ordinance that would force the Helvenstons to uproot approximately 50 percent of their popular city vegetable garden, effectively eliminating a signifcant portion of their food supply. Should the ordinance be adopted, failure to comply would result in fines of up to $500 a day. Several Orlando residents testified at the hearing on behalf of the Helvenstons and the right to garden, as well as Institute for Justice attorney Ari Bargil, an expert on property rights in Florida.

“The draft ordinance recommended by the Planning Board is not simply wrong, it’s unconstitutional,” said Ari Bargil. “The government does not have the power to regulate for purely aesthetic reasons a peaceful and traditional use of private property, such as raising a garden for personal use. The government has the authority to regulate only for real public health and safety concerns.”

The draft ordinance would allow backyard gardens, but would limit front yard gardens in Orlando to 25 percent of the total front yard area.The ordinance also contains numerous restrictions pertaining to fences, planter boxes and other garden-related materials that could make gardening prohibitive for many residents. Importantly, everything in the ordinance is designed to regulate how gardens look. There are no limits on what residents may grow, how or when they may irrigate, or whether or not they may use pesticides. The Planning Board appears solely interested in aesthetic considerations.

The measure was recommended despite the fact that a number of board members voiced concern with the constitutionality of the proposed ordinance and the hurried manner in which it was prepared. In fact, the Planning Board officially suggested that the City Commission take several additional factors into consideration rather than hastily voting on the proposal. Specifically, the Planning Board recommended that the City Commission seek the expertise of knowledgeable environmental and gardening professionals before adopting restrictions like the 25-percent limitation and maximum-height rules. It is now up to the City Commission to decide whether or not to heed the Planning Board’s recommendation that the city reconsider several of the code’s provisions before passing it.

“The greatest freedom you can give someone is the freedom to know they will not go hungry,” said Jason Helvenston. “Our Patriot Garden pays for all of its costs in healthy food and lifestyle while having the lowest possible carbon footprint. It supplies valuable food while being attractive. I really do not understand why there is even a discussion,” Jason continued. “They will take our house before they take our Patriot Garden.”

“We are asking residents across Orlando and the country to join us in planting a ‘Patriot Garden’ in their own front yards,” said Jennifer. “Email patriotgarden@gmail.com and we will send you a free packet of radish seeds and a small sign for your front yard that says ‘Patriot Garden: Plant a Seed, Change the Law.’ Join us in telling the city of Orlando and local governments everywhere, ‘hands off our food!’”


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