Food Bad, Lawns Good? Berkeley Bureaucrats Target Transition Activist

front_of_asa_house_9657.jpgAsa Dodsworth’s Home on Acton at Allston Way in Berkeley.

I got an email forwarded to me over the weekend titled "BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA HATES URBAN GARDENS" which naturally sparked my interest. Turns out to be a lot more interesting than the title even suggested. Asa Dodsworth has lived in his place on Acton and Allston Way in Berkeley for about a decade, which he owns. He’s a gentle, lanky fellow who decided some years ago to plant food in his front yard and on the six-foot wide median between the curb and the sidewalk running in front of his property. He’s not officially associated with Transition Towns or any of the many new initiatives cropping up (pun intended!) that are trying to find local ways to address a world out of kilter. But clearly his dedicated effort to use his small area to grow food instead of keeping it strictly ornamental or recreational is part of a bigger agenda of urban redesign and transformation that benefits us all, and sets a standard that many more of us should be working towards.

I took my bike on BART to seek out this controversial streetscape and see for myself. As luck would have it, I arrived in late afternoon and found Asa pruning some of the foliage in his median, while a cluster of folks stood around discussing not just his situation, but the also the larger dynamic associated with the overblown "crisis" of the light brown apple moth. (For a full download on this topic, go to www.DontSprayCalifornia.org). To get to Asa’s place I got off at Ashby BART and rode north on Acton until I found it, not knowing precisely where it was, but having seen some photos on-line. As I rode along I couldn’t help but notice that LOTS of homes along Acton are characterized by dense foliage in the front yards, sometimes fruit trees, sometimes just a variety of thick shrubs, flowers and on one occasion at least, artichokes!

artichokes_9652.jpgArtichokes on Acton Street median.
yard_at_artichoke_house_9651.jpgThe rest of the yard where the artichokes are growing.
acton_street_front_yard_9649.jpgAnother dense front yard on Acton St.
acton_st_front_garden_9655.jpgObviously lots of Berkeley neighbors want to use their front yards in non-suburban ways!

I arrived and chatted with the folks there. Max is an activist with the Don’t Spray California campaign and pointed out that the nearby pocket park has several insect traps placed in it, just in the past week or two. She felt that the harassment the city was subjecting Asa to was part of a broader campaign that would use the presence of food-growing urban gardens as an excuse for extensive pesticide spraying on behalf of the state’s agribusiness interests. I wouldn’t dismiss that out of hand, for sure, but it’s hard to think that local Berkeley code enforcers are working for the big ag interests that dominate state politics… so what is really going on?

front_of_asa_house_sidewalk_9659.jpgNeighbors discuss politics in front of Asa’s house.

Here’s an excerpt from Asa’s appeal:

The City of Berkeley Code enforcement has decided my front yard fruit trees and garden beds are an "unpermitted violation" and must be removed. They have fined me $4,500- already and threatened daily additional fines of the same. That’s $135,000 per month!

In conversation they tell me that I’m supposed to have a lawn just like all the other houses, they say that the front yards is for recreation. But they don’t put those crazy statements on paper, on paper they write citations for

    * vegetation over six foot tall, a five hundred dollar a day fine, now cited twice in a two week period
    * Unpermitted Trees, a five hundred dollar a day fine, cited twice
    * Unpermitted Garden Beds, a five hundred dollar a day fine, cited twice
    * two counts of obstruction of the right of way, at five hundred dollar a day each.
    * And a we already told you so citation, a five hundred dollar a day fine
    * and to further damage me, they mailed copies of this mayhem to my Bank

In recent walking surveys of our Berkeley yardscape: 25% of Berkeley Properties have a fruit tree in the right of way, 80% have vegetation obstructing the sidewalk, or egress for cars, and 90% have vegetation over 6 ft tall. These numbers establish a clear community standard of appreciation and support of front yard gardens. And that community standard is defensible position in a court of law.

And I will fight these citations all the way, Code enforcement Officers Maurice Norrise and Gregory Daniels have selectively enforced these laws, as a tool of harassment, against myself and every community garden, and activist household I know of in Berkeley. Its time to turn this tide. Its time for an investigation into the questionable practices of Berkeley’s code enforcement department.

Step in for a fellow neighbor, and Stand up for your right to plant you own Victory Garden, for your right to choose the trees that you are responsible for pruning and sweeping up after. Don’t let them take away this valuable tool in the fight against global warming.

We need you to call these important local decision makers and tell them how you feel, call and leave a message tonight
Deputy City Manager Lisa Caronna, (510) 981-7600
Neighborhood Services Officer Angela Gallegos-Castillo (510) 981-2491
City Manager Phil Kamlarz (510) 981-7000

if you wanna see pictures of the Garden, visit www.berkeleyvictorygardens.tk
If you want to help us organize events, email fruit-jam-renegades (AT) googlegroups.com
if you want to stay in touch, or come to a garden building party, check out
http://groups.google.com/group/food-not-lawns-eastbay-events

Sincerely, Asa Dodsworth, moped45 (AT) gmail.com
oh, and dont forget to forward this message to your friends

asa_dodsworth_9660.jpgAsa Dodsworth

It’s pretty difficult to imagine a city with Berkeley’s self-image of progressivism and ecological sanity standing behind this kind of obsolete, suburbanite bureaucratic behavior. Take a moment to make a call, or if you live in Berkeley, lean on your council members and the Mayor to not only back off, but honor and reward Asa! His actions are a model that should go well beyond the medians and front yards and extend to narrowing roads and taking up a lane wherever possible for food production…

Coming soon: One Lane for Food!

  • Wow, Berkeley is arguing for lawns over gardens? Berkeley?!? It boggles the mind.

  • WOW!! Berkley?!?! My friend who is attending grad school out there is right to call it Bezerkly.

    My veggie garden in suburban NJ keeps on creeping further into the front yard as my trees grow bigger and shade out the garden in the back.

    No worries yet but I’m concerned.

    So much for Berkley being a bastion of progressive, liberal thinking. This obvious example of selective and excessive enforcement by a government entity is literally the most fascist thing I’ve read in a while.

  • bikerider

    Admittedly, Berkeley permit office can be nasty to deal with, but this report has a lot of missing information that leads one to conclude that there is two sides to this story.

    Berkeley code enforcement won’t look at a property unless it receives complaints from neighbors. If published reports are correct (this has been going on since 2003), Asa has had plenty of problems in that regard; i.e. encroaching on public right-of-way (sidewalks) with compost bins and delivery vans, leaving construction material on front yard, people camping out, etc. I’m not saying he did any of those things, but the permit office generally gives opportunity to correct problems before fines are levied. They only “throw the book” if a property owner is repeat offender.

    BTW, all my neighbors in Berkeley grow huge urban gardens, on their property and in nearby traffic circles. Nobody from the city bureaucracy has ever complained.

  • Mim

    The woman you spoke with, Max, is likely as close to the truth as anyone in this is. I will write about what is happening to Asa and I will make phone calls.

    Humans have a right to eat, and a right not to have to buy their food from industrial agribusiness. Hang in there, Asa Dodsworth! I hope many people will make calls and let the people who are persecuting this simple urban farmer know how totally unethical and shameful their behavior is.

  • gazer

    Wow, in my neighborhood of Cleveland, I’m happy when people just pick up the trash that’s blown into their yard/tree lawn and/or don’t generate said trash themselves! I’d kill for the type of growth shown in your pictures.

    That said, comment by bikerider above makes sense – there’s probably more going on than currently meets the eye.

  • Cranky_Old_Batt

    So this is how the city is going to keep from going bankrupt. I used to love walking by the chaotic front yard gardens when I lived downtown. Maybe less than 1% looked like places for vermin to hide out. Less than 1%! The rest were just either neat flowers, and small food plantings or wildflower style plantings. A nice little reminder of real nature nestled in the grime of the city, not scummy at all. $hame on you Berkley city council!

  • if some of you want history on the matter,
    yes there was compost in the front yard, about eight years ago. And a school bus to deliver people to protest activities. The compost was removed about eight years, ago and the bus moved on to around the same time. The bus was never illegal, it was a large bus on our small road, some people wanted it to be illegal, but its not illegal to possess one or park it in front of your house. At this early juncture the code enforcers tried to force us to remove the garden beds. This assault was rebuffed when several neighbors called the city staff, and a respectable Manager from the Neighborhood services division, Michael Caplan came to visit the garden and told us that it was totally acceptable and would not be threatened by the city code enforcers again.

    In 2005, we were cited for having an illegal floral arbor over the sidewalk. The circumstances that produced this citation were the product of our neighbors dangerous heavy that hung about four feet off the sidewalk. Everyone in the neighborhood complained regularly about this dangerous limb. It took the city four months to respond the this situation, and when they did they decided to harass us for the arbor, and the fruit trees again. I told them quite simply that they weren’t gonna get anything out of the trees as long as Michael Caplan was around. And we fought instead about the arbor, which I agreed to remove.

    During this struggle the media was contacted by a neighbor and we had a sweet little, only in Berkeley article [[http://www.berkeleydailyplanet.com/issue/2005-06-10/article/21578?headline=City-Fines-Bring-End-To-Arbor-On-Acton-By-RICHARD-BRENNNEMAN]] , where bikerider found the above accusations of misconduct. These were accusations that were already three years old at the time, and many of them were for fabricated or for things that were not actually illegal.

    Now its 2009 and Berkeley is in a campaign against blight, inwhich the code enforcers are granted greater discretion and credibility. I have recorded testimony by code enforcer Maurice Norrise in which he admits that no neighbors have now nor ever complained about the fruit trees and garden beds. That the complaint the began this process was unilaterally filed by another code enforcer Gregory Daniels. The neighbors are not distressed by this garden, why on earth would they be? And there is no justifiable reason the code enforcers should be involved.

    BTW, Books are made for enlightening, not throwing.

    Additionally Michael Caplan is no longer in the Neighborhood Services Department. And Angela Gallegos Castillo and Jim Hynes, the two current neighborhood services managers, are pretending they don’t have the authority to intervene.

    So how about some facts,
    –90 of gardens in Berkeley have a vegetation over six foot tall,
    –80% of them have vegetation that obstructs traffic, whether, its pedestrian, wheel chairs or people getting out of their cars.
    –My garden does not obstruct anyone. and its gorgeous.

  • This situation is outrageous. The fact that it’s happening in Berkeley just increases the irony and stupidity. I just posted about it on my blog, slowfamilyonline, which is dedicated to getting people out in nature, growing their food and practicing other sustainable, joyful acts.

    I really thought the culture was moving away from waste and toward practicality, beauty, and community, all of which a front-yard garden represents. Asa, I wish you success with your gorgeous garden and with rectifying this dumb situation. Chris, I’m glad you called our attention to it.

    My post on the garden is here:

    http://tinyurl.com/slowfamily-berkeleygarden

    My post on the rise of front-yard gardening in general is here:

    http://tinyurl.com/slowfamily-bumpercrop

  • christopher dopp

    Asa, Your activism is commendable,,,,They leave us no choice,,,amazing! Disclosure is the foundation for a complaint. Where are these rules posted ? I have never heard of this. Berkeley has become so fascist. Keep me informed and let me know if I can help.

  • Carolyn

    One of my neighbors in Berkeley hired someone to jackhammer out a curbside strip of the sidewalk in front of her house, then planted a dense high thick hedge in her newly created personal parking strip. The hedge makes it pretty much impossible to park in front of her house because you can’t get in or out of the passenger side door, and since the street is quite busy, it’s not easy or very safe to unload kids or groceries on the street side and a handicapped or elderly person should not park there at all. Around my neighborhood in Berkeley this is about the worst hedge, but I see quite a few other places where people have planted stuff in the parking strip that makes the parking strip just about impassable – thick bushes with no gaps between them, even the occasional yucca. Another neighbor has a small wooden frame that they have put in the parking strip, right next to the street side. This kind of stuff seems very common. It’s actually pretty annoying and I wonder why the city doesn’t cite some of these people, since all these violations are pretty easily visible. So on the one hand, Asa may be being singled out; on the other hand, maybe people should leave the parking strips a litle more clear.

  • re carolyn: the raised garden beds and fruit tree’s I’ve planted in the street side planting strip are trimmed 18 inches off the curb face to allow space, for people to exit their cars, this was the encroachment inspectors only request. Which I was glad to comply with, and still do. Even though my neighbors bushes encroach the side walks and street curbs.

    The garden plantings are also separated every 2-3 yards, about a cars length to allow people to cross the planting strip after parking their cars. There my be allot of garden in my garden, but its not a nuisance for pedestrian, bike or automotive traffic.

    Wish y’all the best.

  • margokatt

    wowowowowow….hiliarious….one of the most *liberal* cities in the world doing what they claim the world needs….regulation!!! HA!!!! See how they like regulation….why would anyone be so surprised. I HATE THAT THIS IS HAPPENING….but liberals want more regulation they now have it!

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Bay Area Cities Rediscover the Creeks Under Their Streets

|
One of the proposed designs for Center Street in Berkeley, by Ecocity Builders (Editor’s note: This is Part 1 in a 3-part series on the Bay Area watershed) The proposal to convert Center Street in Berkeley from an asphalt thoroughfare to a park-like promenade — revealing a long-hidden underground creek — is the latest twist […]

Blessing of the Bikes and Sustainable Solutions Bike Tour

|
From EBBC.org: photo courtesy of http://www.theblessingofthebikes.com/ Join us for our first ever Blessing of the Bikes MLK Jr Civic Center Park MLK Jr. Way between Allston Way and Center Street, Berkeley May 5, 11:00am – noon To launch National Bike Month this May, the EBBC will host its first-ever Blessing of Bicycles. Bring your bike […]

Today’s Headlines

|
Threat of Golden Gate Ferry Strike Looms as Buses Already Short on Drivers (CBS) Uber’s “Surge Pricing” Sends Rideshare Fares to $450 Per Ride After Outside Lands (CBS) SFMTA Parking Control Officer’s Vehicle Towed From Bus Stop at 24th and Valencia (Pic via Reddit) Taxi Driver Filmed Driving in Townsend Bike Lane to Be Cited by SFMTA […]

This Week: Sounds in Our Cities, Bayview Sunday Streets

|
Here are this week’s highlights from the Streetsblog calendar: Monday: Bicycle Advisory Committee Meeting. The committee meets to talk about projects and policies to make recommendations to the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors, the SFMTA, and other agencies. April 25, 6:30-7:30pm, City Hall, Room 408, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, San Francisco. Monday: Berkeley […]

Expanded Downtown Berkeley BART Bike Station Moving Forward

|
Bike station expansion supporters celebrate in the Berkeley City Hall lobby last December following the City Council’s decision to prioritize the bike station expansion. Photo: EBBC Berkeley and East Bay bicycle commuters will have many more bicycle parking options with the opening of a new storefront bicycle station near Downtown Berkeley BART later this year. […]