I Say Tomato, You Say No

Why does it seem like local government officials are competing with each other to see who can implement the most obnoxious rules against people in their respective communities growing food?


With summer now upon us, gardening season is in full swing. And that can only mean it's time for local government officials around the country to try to outdo one another when it comes to preventing everyday people from growing fruit and vegetables in their own yards.

If the proposition that squads of busybody, anti-gardening bureaucrats are waiting in your thicket, ready to pounce on the pecks of peppers you might have tended in your yard sounds like hyperbole, then you clearly have not been paying attention to the news. In years.

Last summer an Oak Park, Michigan, woman faced more than three months in jail for keeping a well-manicured edible garden in her front yard. Oak Park officials charged Julie Bass with a misdemeanor because in their opinion Ms. Bass's tomatoes and vegetables did not meet the city's definition of "suitable live plant material." The city eventually dropped the charges.

Last month, Newton, Massachusetts officials brought the hammer down on a town resident whose handsome hanging tomato garden ran afoul of a city building ordinance prohibiting the construction of "swing sets, swimming pools, or sheds" in a front yard.

"It's a straight-out violation of the ordinance," said John Lojek, the city's commissioner of inspectional services, at the time. (If "inspectional" is a typo, then it is one that appears to be repeated all over officialdom in Massachusetts.)

Faced with the prospect of dismantling the structure, the resident, Eli Katzoff, sought a path to legitimacy.

But Lojek stood firm. "There's no path for them."

Lojek was right–in practice though not in principle. Katzoff was forced to move his plants to the grounds of a nearby theological seminary.

The Boston Globe characterized the move as a sign of "[d]ivine intervention."

The seminary's president took a slightly more secular (and less sanguine) view, calling this a case of "the down side of zoning." And, he wondered, "Who can be against tomatoes?"

Bureaucrats, that's who.

While Oak Park and Newton are wealthy suburban enclaves, urban and even rural home gardeners are not immune to the flowering cruelty of local bureaucrats.

Take Denise Morrison of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Last summer Tulsa code enforcement officers went onto her land and literally ripped out Morrison's edible garden.

According to reports, the ordinance at issue stated that "plants can't be over 12-inches tall unless they're used for human consumption."

Morrison, who was unemployed at the time, consumed the wide variety of plants she grew—including "lemon, stevia, garlic chives, grapes, strawberries, apple mint, spearmint, peppermint, an apple tree, walnut tree, pecan trees and much more."

Last week Morrison fought back, filing a civil rights lawsuit against the city.

Meanwhile, an Illinois woman is currently fighting county officials who won't permit her or her neighbors keep farm animals on their… farmland.

Kelli Otting's garden on her one-acre property hasn't run afoul of the county, but her wish to raise chickens and goats on her farm—located in a rural, unincorporated part of downstate Illinois—has met opposition from the county land commission.

While Otting's struggles raise the sometimes controversial issue of backyard chickens clucking in urban areas, the general hurdles faced by Otting, Morrison, Katzoff, and Bass—and by thousands of others around the country who simply want to grow their own food—can be blamed on local zoning boards run amok.

Zoning is intended—say its proponents—to prevent nuisances from arising. But when zoning itself becomes the nuisance, and when it gets in the way of people using their own property how they'd like–and exactly no one is made better off, save for the bureaucrats who make and enforce the ordinances–then that piece of zoning must fall.

Decades before First Lady Michelle Obama planted a highly visible garden on the White House back lawn, then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt's efforts to plant a similar garden met with resistance from her own husband's Department of Agriculture, which Time magazine reported (subscription) at the time was "skeptical of amateur farmers."

That attitude—having spread like a weed through zoning and code-enforcement rules that stretch across America—is one worth combating.

Baylen J. Linnekin, a lawyer, is executive director of Keep Food Legal, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that advocates in favor of food freedom—the right to grow, raise, produce, buy, sell, cook, eat, and drink the foods of our own choosing.