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In Orlando, vegetable gardeners fight City Hall and win

Vegetable gardeners fight City Hall ... and win
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Jason and Jennifer Helvenston stand among the sweet potato vines in their front yard garden in Orlando, Fla., on Aug. 6. Joe Burbank | Orlando SentinelMCT
 Posted: 2:00 AM October 01, 2013

ORLANDO, Fla. — After an embarrassing battle with a couple of gardeners, Orlando, Fla., officials have drawn up new rules governing homeowners who want to plant carrots and cucumbers in their front yards.

It's the latest salvo — and probably the last — in a literal turf war over what Orlando residents can plant in front of their homes. It started last year, when Jason and Jennifer Helvenston were hit with a code-enforcement citation for digging up their College Park neighborhood front lawn and replacing it with lettuce, kale, radishes, tomatoes and more.

The perception of big government cracking down on veggies drew media attention and a gardener revolt.

City planners responded by drawing up rules that specifically allowed front-yard vegetable gardens, but critics protested outside City Hall. The rules were so strict that they would drastically cut the space available for food gardens, they argued. Commissioners sent the planners back to the drawing board.

The new version, expected to go to the City Council for final approval next month, is quite a bit more relaxed.

"We're going to get to keep our garden," Jason Helvenston said. "There are going to be very few gardens that will be illegal under this particular wording."

The first version of the garden regulations would have allowed residents to plant vegetables on no more than 25 percent of their front yard; required gardens to be screened with fencing or shrubs, set back at least 10 feet from the property line or put in planter boxes; and limited vegetable plants to no more than 4 feet tall. Green-thumbed protesters objected.

Gardens are on the rise, partly because of the still-struggling economy, partly because of a "clean food" movement that objects to pesticides and the environmental footprint of factory farming. Gardeners argued that city officials should be encouraging residents to cultivate their own food, not limiting how much space they can use or how tall their tomatoes grow.

Planners revamped the new rules with help from landscape architects, horticulturists and the Helvenstons themselves.

The new rules would allow veggies to cover as much as 60 percent of a front yard. The 10-foot setback was shrunk to 3 feet, and the vegetable-height limit was thrown out.

Jennifer Helvenston credited the gardening army with changing minds at City Hall.

"I think we arrived at the right spot in the end," chief planner Jason Burton said. "That input from around the world and locally helped get us to the point we are today, where we have an ordinance I think everyone can live with. I think it's a positive thing."

Burton said Orlando unfairly got a black eye over the garden war. Planners simply want to ensure the landscaping is well maintained — vegetable or otherwise — rather than out-of-control weeds or a garden gone to seed.

"People thought we were against front-yard gardens, and we really weren't," Burton said. "People are not always successful with gardens, and what happens is, people will do it for one season and suddenly it's dirt forever. We wanted to make sure there was a level of permanent landscaping."

Helvenston predicts one portion of the new code will have unintended consequences. The city added a 5-foot height limit on temporary structures, which was meant to govern such things as tomato cages. But Helvenston thinks it would prevent homeowners from placing swings or fountains in their front yards.

Gardeners are likely to be as happy as they can be with a set of rules. But the Helvenstons wonder: Why adopt any rules, especially if they are so limited that they will affect few homeowners?

"It's a perfect example of how a government reacts to something and tries to do their thing but goes way too far," Jason Helvenston said. "They didn't really need to do anything but say, 'Front-yard gardens are OK.' "


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