15 Sep 2014
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Is That Front Yard Veggie Garden Legal?

Zoning laws thwart residential gardeners in some parts of the country, but a few have fought back.

Is That Front Yard Veggie Garden Legal? Is That Front Yard Veggie Garden Legal?

As I was preparing an article about raised garden beds, I came across a story with a headline that caught my eye: “Michigan Woman Faces 93 Days in Jail for Planting Vegetable Garden.”

As a front-yard gardener, I was intrigued by the headline. I began to wonder if Los Angeles had similar laws that could affect me and other Sherman Oaks residents.

I began investigating, and came across a blog written by Julie Bass, the woman who was the subject of the story. I soon discovered that in some states, having a vegetable garden in a front yard is illegal. I had to know if it was illegal here in Sherman Oaks as well.

I phoned the Los Angeles Department of City Planning, and while waiting for a call back, I read the full story about the Bass family in Oak Park, MI. I learned that because of a water main break, Oak Park city workers had to dig up the Michigan woman’s front lawn to access and repair the break. Afterward, instead of replanting grass in the front yard, the Basses decided to install raised garden beds, thereby landing themselves in the midst of a bureaucratic morass.

Outdated laws in Michigan, like many other states, prohibit homeowners from growing vegetables in their front yards. Fortunately, Los Angeles city officials have modified zoning laws to encourage people to grow plants, including vegetables, that require less water than grass. (More on that later.)

As Julie Bass fought to change laws in Oak Park, she started a blog, Oak Park Hates Veggies, oakparkhatesveggies.wordpress.com/, to share her story with others.

In a post dated July 21, 2011, she writes: “I got on their [city officials'] radar screen and was subsequently warned to move said garden, since it was not what the city likes in a front yard, not because I was in violation of anything. They had to stretch and play word games and make up something that I supposedly violated so they could threaten me.”

After many months, the city of Oak Park dropped all charges, and has allowed the Bass family to keep its garden. That’s great news for the Basses, but I still wondered whether we in Sherman Oaks could run afoul of the law. I wasn’t sure that I was willing to go to jail for my garden.

I spoke to Deborah Kahen, who works in the Code Studies Unit at the  Department of City Planning. Kahen sent me a recommendation report dated March 25, 2010, which clarifies truck gardening and farming, in each zone, along with occupation conditions and standards.

In Los Angeles, the bureaucratic tangle came in the difference between truck gardening and farming. Certain areas of the city are zoned for farming, which allows the growth of vegetables. What the law was trying to prohibit is people using their residential properties as commercial farms, which would increase traffic in the neighborhood from customers visiting and workers coming to prepare the yard and harvest. The law was contained in the part of the zoning law that applies to home-based businesses and regulated the volume of business traffic on residential streets.

"[The code] does not specifically mention vegetable gardens in the front yard, but it is allowed in L.A.,” Kahen said.

The City Council modified the law in 2010 to eliminate the ambiguities. That is great news for residents of Sherman Oaks. Many cities in the U.S. have clarified and changed their laws within the past few years to include vegetable gardens in front yards. Of course, that is after others have experienced misdemeanor offenses in their neighborhoods as well.

A Google search provided more than 11 other cases of residents around the U.S. who have fought their city councils for the right to have a vegetable garden on any part of their property.

So, in short: No, that zucchini will not get you in trouble. If it does, I can guarantee that if you bring up Michelle Obama having a vegetable garden in the front yard of the White House, so can you.

The full report from the Department of City Planning can be read at: http://cityplanning.lacity.org/StaffRpt/InitialRpts/CPC-2010-445.pdf

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