Last night the Freedom Center of Missouri struck a blow for property rights, persuading the Board of Adjustment for the city of Ferguson, Missouri, to overturn the city’s determination that residents must get the City’s permission before cultivating gardens in their yards.
The Freedom Center was representing Karl Tricamo, a resident who, inspired by the birth of his infant son, decided to ensure his family’s access to cheap, nutritious, organic produce by planting a garden in his yard. Prior to beginning work, he carefully reviewed the city’s ordinances and found that nothing required citizens to plant their yards with grass and that restrictions on the height of plants specifically exempted “vegetation in gardens,” and the zoning ordinances expressly allowed for community gardens in residential areas.
“I just thought it would be an excellent way to help provide for my family,” Tricamo said. “People have been gardening since the beginning of human civilization, and the First Lady has even been setting an example by gardening at the White House! I never expected it to be so controversial.”
But almost as soon as Tricamo started work on his garden, Ferguson city officials began ordering him to cover his yard with straw and to plant grass, even though no ordinance includes any such requirement. Over the next several months, code enforcement officials repeatedly told Tricamo that his garden was in violation of city laws, although they kept changing their story about which ordinance they thought was being violated – and every time Tricamo actually looked up the ordinances the officials cited, he found that they did not actually say anything suggesting his garden was illegal.
“Unfortunately, some government officials are willing to try to control how citizens use their property, even if there are no laws against what the citizen is doing and there is no threat to the public health or safety,” remarked Dave Roland, the Freedom Center’s director of litigation.
Despite the absence of any clear authority, the city was adamant: Tricamo could not grow his own vegetables without getting the city’s permission, and if he did not like it he would have to take his case to the city’s Board of Zoning Adjustment. And so, with the support of his landlord, Jesse Brandt, that is exactly what Tricamo did.
“As a property owner, my rights are protected by the Constitution,” Brandt said. “There is nothing even remotely harmful about having a garden next to your home, so why should the city be able to ban it?”
The Board of Adjustment took up the matter on Wednesday evening and heard arguments from the City, Mr. Roland, Mr. Tricamo, and several members of the community. In addition to the legal arguments that the Freedom Center advanced, the testimony pointed out the growing movement in favor of organic, locally-grown produce and the well-documented challenges that low-income families face in finding reasonably priced vegetables in grocery stores. In the end, four of the five members of the Board of Adjustment agreed that Ferguson’s zoning laws do not prohibit citizens from growing gardens in residential areas. Ferguson’s residents are free to grow vegetables in their yards as long as they are not violating a specific ordinance or endangering the public health or safety.
“Many citizens get intimidated when someone from the government accuses them of breaking the law, because they are afraid to take on City Hall,” Roland said. “I’m proud of Mr. Tricamo and Mr. Brandt, because in standing up for their own constitutional rights, they have given hope to everyone else who might face a similar situation.”