By William Patrick | Florida Watchdog
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Few things in life are as benign as a home vegetable garden.
But for the residents of Miami Shores, Fla., growing veggies can land you a fine — the type you eventually can’t afford.
That’s what happened to Hermine Ricketts and her husband, Tom Carroll. For the past 17 years they’ve grown a garden in the front yard of their modest South Florida home. The backyard, they say, doesn’t get enough sunlight.
But in May, the city put the couple’s garden, and any others like it, in their legal crosshairs.
A new zoning ordinance designed to “protect the distinctive character of the Miami Shores Village,” was enacted and specifically prohibited vegetables – not fruit, trees or even plastic flamingos – from appearing in front yards.
Shortly after, the couple received a visit from their local code enforcement officer. They were given a choice: Uproot the garden or pay a $50 per day fine to keep it.
After twice appearing before the Miami Shores Code Enforcement Board and being denied an exemption, the couple decided to dig up the garden rather than fork over $1,500 a month to the city.
Now they’re taking their case to court.
In an effort to reinstate the couple’s right to grow a few vegetables on their own property, the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit libertarian leaning legal aid group, filed a lawsuit Tuesday on their behalf.
“We’re not suing for money,” IJ attorney Ari Bargil told Florida Watchdog. “We’re asking the court to rule that this law is unconstitutional so Hermine and Tom can plant their garden again.”
According to Bargil, the ordinance infringes on the couple’s basic right to privacy – a right the Florida Constitution recognizes more broadly than the U.S. Constitution.
“Miami Shores will have to prove that its ban promotes a compelling governmental interest and is narrowly tailored to advance that interest,” wrote Bargil in a litigation backgrounder.
For its part, the city has yet to explain any interest beyond the language of the law itself.
Similar bans have taken root in other parts of the country. Ron Finely of South Los Angeles and Adam Guerro of Memphis were found in violation of city gardening ordinances, though they eventually prevailed.
But Denise Morrison of Tulsa, Okla., wasn’t so lucky. Her edible garden was largely destroyed by local authorities while she waited for her day in court. Julie Bass of Oak Park, Mich,. faced 90-days in jail for her home-grown veggies. The charges were eventually dropped.
Such rules are usually rooted in maintaining the aesthetic value of a neighborhood. Other residents have every right to complain — though that was not the case in Miami Shores — or local authorities can make a determination themselves.
The problem, however, is when a homeowner reasonably disagrees with city officials on what is considered visually “suitable.” Throw in the productive use of growing food on one’s own property, and such restrictions can come across as arbitrary and subjective.
While the Florida case may seem to be small-potatoes to those that don’t grow and eat their own food, Bargil offers a simple warning.
“If the government can tell you what you can and can’t do in your front yard, what else can they decide is off-limits?”
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