Jeff Rowes, a lawyer for the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm based in Arlington, Va., that is advising Helvenston, is adamant.
“It’s the micromanagement of land that invades your liberty in a thousand small ways,” he said.
Invoking the nation’s agrarian past, Rowes noted, “Washington, Jefferson and Madison were all farmers.”
For Pedin, the issue is less about the inalienable right to grow snap peas at home than it is about the prerogative to not stand idly by while your property value plummets. Helvenston’s garden is “messy,” Pedin said, and will attract rats and lower the worth of his rental home. Pedin also questioned Helvenston’s commitment to maintaining the mulch-covered plot.
Helvenston, who is 40 and wears his hair in the same receding-ponytail style as martial-arts actor Steven Seagal, said his green thumb isn’t a whim but a financial necessity.
Anyone who is going to remove his family’s garden, he told a reporter by phone, “might as well kick down our door, steal food from our table and take off.”
Jennifer Helvenston took the phone from her husband.
“We want to be sustainable,” she said.
Jason Helvenston, who has begun referring to his yard as a “patriot garden,” an overt reference to the Victory Gardens planted during World War II, got back on the line, expressing disbelief at the response by Pedin and the city of Orlando: “Who doesn’t like a garden? It’s like punching a baby.” Many municipalities have spent the past 50 years drafting increasingly restrictive codes governing their residents’ landscaping choices. Orlando’s code, for instance, specifies that planted shrubs “shall be a minimum of 24 inches in height” and “spaced not more than 36 inches apart,” while berms “shall not exceed a slope of 3:1.” The code goes on to list no fewer than 295 approved and prohibited species.
Opponents like Rowes argue that such strict rules are fine when instituted by homeowners associations, where residents “go in with their eyes wide open,” but codification of a homeowner’s landscaping by local governments can be “oppressive.”
Jon Ippel, sustainability director for the city of Orlando, said the list of approved and prohibited plantings is intended to create permanent landscaping that survives Florida’s climate and keeps out invasive species. As for the enforced homogeneity, Ippel said, the code was written in 1991 and reflects an era when “the aesthetic was more of a formalized thing. Organic, natural planting was out of vogue.”
The garden sharing program run by the city of Santa Monica, Calif., where residents are permitted — even encouraged — to plant front-yard gardens, turns out to be the exception, not the rule.
City officials frequently cite public health and safety as the main reasons for zoning codes, but the underlying driver is often real estate.
John Shaw, the city manager in Ferguson, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis, said of zoning codes, “At the end of the day, they’re there to protect homeowners and to protect their property value.”
Last summer, after Karl Tricamo, the stay-at-home father in Ferguson, was informed that his front-yard garden was in violation, he challenged the city and won a ruling from the Board of Adjustment that allowed him to keep his veggies.