December 3, 2012

In Orlando, You Can’t Grow Your Own Garden

By: AFF Editors

You know government has grown too big when it bans growing a garden in your own yard.  Such is the case in Orlando, but one family is fighting to restore common sense and constitutional boundaries on what the government says you cannot do with your land.

Jennifer and Jason Helvenston are the Bonnie and Clyde of Orlando’s College Park neighborhood.  Instead of robbing banks, they use their front yard to grow their own food, which, in Orlando, is illegal.  And if the Helvenstons do not dig up their garden by December 10, the city has threatened them with fines of up to $500 per day merely for growing peppers instead of azaleas—or some other plant the city arbitrarily deems more desirable.

Growing a garden is as old as civilization, and deeply rooted in the American experience.  During both World Wars, Americans were encouraged to plant their own “Victory Gardens,” which were an economical way to increase the nation’s food supply.  It makes little sense that something that was once considered a patriotic duty should now be against the law, and the garden ban is especially ironic because Orlando aspires to be the “Greenest City in America.”

The Helvenstons have invested time and money in a front yard garden that is inviting and educational.  They welcome neighborhood kids and novice gardeners onto their property to learn how to grow food and they give away produce to their neighbors.  Rather than applauding the Helvenstons for their innovative ideas and contributions to their community, Orlando has ordered them to destroy their garden.

The city is demanding that their front lawn—a little piece of the American Dream that is now literally fruitful—be laid fallow with grass.  What Orlando’s politicians and bureaucrats fail to realize is that many people do not want their home fronted by useless grasses and plants.  To require homeowners to conform to the city’s preference is to prohibit a traditional use of land that is peaceful and productive.

And, importantly, it is beyond the power of government to make such demands.

Although cities typically get wide latitude in zoning, the U.S. and Florida constitutions protect our property rights from arbitrary invasions.  Insisting that the Helvenstons cultivate grass instead of a tomato is the sort of irrational interference that goes beyond ordinary zoning and impinges on their rights.  Indeed, Orlando’s micromanagement of something as harmless as a front yard garden illustrates how far we have strayed from the conception of independent property ownership embedded in our federal and state constitutions.

All Jason and Jennifer Helvenston want is to peacefully use their property free from arbitrary dictates.  The City of Orlando should not only withdraw its demand that the Helvenstons destroy their beloved garden, it should amend its zoning code to allow more people to follow the lead of our ancestors—and the Helvenstons—and plant the seeds of a more vibrant community.  Everyone has the right to enjoy the fruits and vegetables of their labor.

Ari Bargil is an attorney with the Institute for Justice Florida Chapter, headquartered in Miami.  For more information on IJ, visit Image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.