Reluctant revolutionaries, Jason and Jennifer Helvenston face code enforcement over their “illegal garden."
The Helvenstons' residential neighborhood is largely comprised of rental homes, which they say are often maintained to a barely attractive state. By contrast, many neighbors say they enjoy the Helvenston garden.
Photo courtesy Jason and Jennifer Helvenston
Jason and Jennifer Helvenston didn’t set out to be revolutionaries. Their small house in urban Orlando is located on a street comprised mainly of unkempt rentals. They stand out, however, because in front of their home is a vegetable garden, overflowing with chard, beans, tomatoes and greens. But now that garden is in jeopardy. They were told to remove it by Nov. 7 or face the wrath of code enforcement.
Jennifer, a physical therapist and brand new Master Gardener relates, “When we first started building the house, it was really always in the plans to continue with the sustainability movement. Let’s have an energy efficient, water efficient home … then reduce our carbon footprint by growing our own vegetables.”
Jason, a sustainability consultant, agrees. “We went as green and sustainable and energy efficient as we could afford…but our backyard is basically shaded by four or five live oaks from the neighbors, and we just don’t have any daylight … the garden just wouldn’t grow back there so our only option was the front yard.”
But on Oct. 8, 2012, a notice from Orlando’s Code Enforcement stated that their “Front yard must be restored to its original configuration and ground covers restored.”
Jason and Jennifer have thus far refused, though they’re far from being firebrands or troublemakers. Jason states “We really didn’t do it in terms of being revolutionary… we just wanted some vegetables. We live on the dead-end of I-4. Pretty much every house on the dead-end is a rental property, with very kind of unmanaged, un-maintained yards. They keep them just barely nice. We thought vegetables were quite attractive.”
It turns out a landlord – who lives outside the country – filed a complaint. The Helvenston’s were shocked since they’d informed all their neighbors of their plans and found the street more than receptive to the idea. Many of the other homeowners and renters chatted with them regularly as the garden took shape. The food plot became a communal gathering place where new relationships were made regularly.
Jennifer shares: “We went to all the neighbors on the street and asked them to pick a fall crop that didn’t take a lot of space and we would plant it for them and encourage their kids to come over and actually plant in the soil, and in our last crop, the spring crop, the kids would plant the seeds, watch the seedlings come up, and carrots for example – they would pull the carrots out, not realizing a carrot grew underground…I think it’s so important for children to know where our food comes from.”
Jason was also encouraged by the positive interaction he’s had with neighbors. “I’m a consultant … I’ve been kind of beating my head against the wall trying to get people to go green. And it’s been really a challenge. I plant this garden in my front yard and I’ve probably reached more people with this one garden than I did in three years.”
When contacted via e-mail, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer responded with a letter stating in part:
The City is working with the property owner to address a concern shared by a neighbor regarding lack of ground cover. This code helps the City maintain standard levels that help keep property values up for residents and creates an inviting atmosphere for neighbors.
He also stated that Orlando is creating a “Green Works Task Force” to address items such as this.
But when Jason and Jennifer originally contacted the city, they were informed in no uncertain terms that their veggies needed to be taken out and replaced with “appropriate” ground cover. However, in the face of media attention, Orlando code enforcement has now asked Jason and Jennifer to meet with them.
The couple is hopeful they’ll be able to change hearts, but warn they won’t take much in the way of restrictions. They see gardening on one’s own land as a constitutional – and even a religious – right. “With all the GMOs that we’re being faced with, we really need to have the ability to grow our own clean, healthy food,” Jennifer says.
Unfortunately, the Helvenston story is not an isolated incident. Homeowners across the US and Canada have faced similar battles with code enforcement regulations specifically designed to maintain the status quo of inedible shrubs, lawn and ground cover. Earlier this year, multiple outlets carried the story of Josée Landry and Michel Beauchamp’s illegal garden in Drummondville, Quebec – now allowed after a successful petition drive.
And last year, LA gardener Ron Finley was cited for planting a curbside in LA, another ruling that has happily been reversed.
Many other stories don’t make it to the news – but as the push towards local food and sustainable living increases, chances are we’ll be seeing a lot more of the same.
Whatever the outcome of the upcoming meeting with the city, Jason states: “You’ll take my house before you take my garden…our society is on a train wreck of vanity…to say that one yard is prettier than another is one thing, to say our yard is unkempt you cannot. Our yard is not unkempt – it’s very kept. We’re just fighting over one plant being prettier than another.”
Cassandra Anne Lafser, Public Information Officer for the Office of the Mayor of Orlando, offered the following statement:
The City is not requiring the property owner to tear up his garden. The City of Orlando is committed to environmental responsibility and encourages the use of vegetable gardens as a sustainable source of producing food. The City is working with the property owner to address a concern shared by a neighbor. The concern was related to the appearance of the lack of ground cover.
The City does not have an ordinance governing vegetable gardens in the front yard. Our existing landscape code never contemplated front yard food production, hence the confusion. As society’s tastes change, we continue to adapt our development and landscape codes.
To assist with this process and the topic of sustainability as a whole, the City has created a Green Works Task Force. The Task Force will help develop Orlando’s plan for sustainability, which will serve as the road map to steer future policies, developments and investments. The Task Force will review the current land development code as it relates to landscaping and explore options and standards.
If you would like to voice your opinion regarding this issue to Orlando's Mayor Buddy Dyer, he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 407.246.2182.
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