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!