08 July 2011

Jail time for planting a garden? Remember, not everyone will like your self-reliance plans.

I saw a story today about Julie Bass of Oak Park, Michigan, who faces over 90 days in jail for planting a garden in her front yard. You can watch the video here:

Like others, I feel this is outrageous behavior on the part of the city. Presumably, this action is intended to ensure that the neighborhoods' look "beautiful." Of course, beauty is very subjective... what this really seems to be about is conformity. It makes you wonder what would happen if another neighbor remade their front lawn into a decorative rock garden, or installed lawn carpeting, or maybe just used an alternative ground cover like clover or Blue Star Creeper.

Aside from the injustice of this particular case, there's a valuable lesson here: Not everyone is going to be okay with the changes you make to become more self-reliant. This is particularly true for those living in urban or suburban areas.

Planting a tree or garden, building a shed or a fence, raising livestock, maintaining your own vehicles, or running a business in a home office... these are all examples of things that could cause you problems. Any of them could cause friction with neighbors and/or ultimately result in a legal issue. It may not be "right," but it is a fact that we all have to face.

What to do?

Well, the first thing is to know what the rules are. Is your household part of a homeowners' association? Review those rules first. Also know the laws and/or ordinances for your locality. These will give you a heads-up about whether you're likely to encounter a problem. That said, my searches of the Oak Park City Code didn't find anything that clearly prohibits Ms. Bass' vegetable garden in her front yard, so this clearly isn't foolproof. Still, it is a place to start.

If things are unclear after checking the rule book, you can always ask your city council (or whatever organization governs the rules) for clarification, or even a variance. The downside is that you may get an answer you don't want to hear. They may rule against your request, or stipulate that you can't do what you're planning to do. As a mentor of mine used to say, "don't ask the question if you can't stand the answer."

Don't automatically give up, however. See if you can reach some compromise, or find some way to appeal the decision. If that fails, you have to decide whether to give up and give in, to proceed as planned and suffer the consequences, or to find some alternative.

Once you know that your plans are a problem, I believe that proceeding is only worthwhile if you really feel strongly about the situation. The "damn the torpedoes" approach may be initially satisfying, but you have to be willing to deal with the ramifications.

If you knowingly planted a garden in a place that was explicitly ruled off limits (which I don't believe is the case with Ms. Bass), then you must expect citations and ultimately legal action by the city. It could even lead to jail time and perhaps forcible removal of the gardens by the city. Is all the cost and hassle worthwhile? Maybe, if you feel strongly and are trying to get the rules changed. But, I'm guessing that most people would say no.

So then, give up? Giving up may be necessary some times, but finding a compromise or some alternative is better. While planting your garden in your front yard should be perfectly acceptable, it might bring just this kind of problem (which is why I haven't done exactly the same thing... yet.) Choosing to locate your garden in your side or back yard is more "typical," and should be less prone to criticism or violations.

You have to decide: What's your motivation for what you want to do? Are you just being obstinate? Is it less trouble to go another way and fly under the radar, so to speak?

Of course, if this is a reoccurring problem where you live, you might want to gradually work on moving to another area if possible. Just be sure to make a careful assessment of the ordinances for any new location before you move, of course.

Have you encountered any problems with local rules where you live? How did you handle the situation?

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