I’ve never liked the idea of city ordinances and homeowners’ association rules that dictate how yards should look. It’s not that I’d particularly relish living next door to a yard full of rusty cars and two-foot weeds; it’s just that when local governments and associations have the power to decide what kind of yard is acceptable and what is not, all it takes is some unclear zoning language, a nasty neighbor or a power-tripping official to turn an innocent garden on a homeowner’s private property into a criminal act.
That’s what fellow Michigan mom Julie Bass is facing. When she and her family decided to plant a veggie garden in the front yard of their modest home in Oak Park, Michigan (just outside Detroit), they thought they did everything right: first they checked with city codes, and when they couldn’t find anything expressly forbidding veggies in the front yard, they hired pros to build plant boxes and put in paving stones and a swing to give it a landscaped look. I think the results (pictured above) look pretty nice.
But Oak Park’s authorities did not agree, and Bass received a warning and a subsequent citation for refusing to take the garden out. Why? According to the city, although front-yard veggie gardens are not expressly against code, they are not “common” (i.e. not the same as everyone else’s) and therefore, not allowable. Bass decided to stick to her guns, left the garden as-is, and asked for a jury trial. If she loses, she could face up to 93 days in jail.
From the ABC News story:
The Oak Park city screening and landscaping ordinance states, “All unpaved portions of the [screening and landscaping] site shall be planted with grass ground cover, shrubbery, or other suitable live plant material.”
The debate is over what is “suitable.”
“If you look at the dictionary, suitable means common. You can look all throughout the city and you’ll never find another vegetable garden that consumes the entire front yard,” Rulkowski [Oak Park's Planning and Technology director] told ABC affiliate WXYZ.
Radner [the Bass's attorney] disagrees. “Suitable does not have any meaning,” he said. “What one person may think is pretty or suitable another person may think is terribly ugly or not suitable. That’s why I think this prosecution is unconstitutional.”
Radner also pointed to an exception listed in the city ordinance that specifically allows vegetable gardens: “Exempted from the provisions of this article, inclusive, are flower gardens, plots of shrubbery, vegetable gardens and small grain plots.”
This issue really got me thinking: it would have been easy for Julie Bass to back down as soon as she got her first warning, or even after the city issued a citation. As a mom, would I take the safe route? Or if I really felt like I was in the right, would I make an example for my kids by sticking to my guns, even if it meant a disruption of family life, unwanted attention and possibly jail time?
I think if I really felt strongly, I’d stick to my guns. If there’s one thing I want my kids to learn it’s that “might does not always equal right” and that sometimes you have to stand up and fight when you think something is wrong or a person in authority is abusing their power. Nonviolent civil disobedience has changed the world for the better; and maybe it can change small corners of it, too. Regardless of whether Bass is 100% correct in her interpretation of zoning codes, I have to give her props for setting a strong example for her children. What do you think?
Living by example is one way; check out how these Celebs Teach Their Kids About Politics!