Life, liberty and the pursuit of vegetables

 

Here’s some food for thought: Can the government make it illegal for homeowners to grow vegetables? Miami Shores thinks so. There it is illegal to grow vegetables in your front yard. Trees, fruit, grass, gnomes and flamingos are OK; but not vegetables. And the village is cracking down.

Hermine Ricketts and Tom Carroll are a happily married couple who have lived in their Miami Shores home for more than 20 years. Their quaint white house faces south, which means that the back yard of their property is almost completely shaded during the fall and winter. Incidentally, that’s also the best time of year for home gardeners in Florida to plant and harvest all sorts of vegetables. So Ricketts and Carroll decided to plant their vegetables in the front yard.

Ricketts, an architect, designed a space that was both beautiful and usable. The couple took great pride in their garden, the vegetables it produced and the example it set for their community. Over time, the garden developed into much more than a patch of arable land; it was a daily source of joy and contentment. And what started as only a hobby became a passion.

For 17 years, nobody — not the village, not the neighbors, not even a concerned citizen — had a problem with it — until now.

This summer, Miami Shores Code Enforcement officers entered the property and told the couple that they were engaging in an illegal activity: Growing vegetables in the front yard. Uproot the garden, they said, or face fines of $50 per day.

The couple complied with the village’s demands. In a single afternoon, Ricketts and Carroll tore up what had taken almost two decades to design and nurture. And along with the destruction of what once provided more than half of their food, they lost a treasured source of joy, pride and relaxation.

Most outrageous is that they were put through this ordeal because they did not comply with an ordinance that is supposedly meant to preserve Miami Shores’ beauty. But inane prohibitions like these — which the town insists somehow protect its “aesthetic character”—just make no sense.

Florida’s Constitution provides protections for people, like Ricketts and Carroll, who want to exercise their fundamental right to peacefully and productively enjoy their property without arbitrary intrusion by the government. And that’s why ordinances that ban vegetables — while allowing fruit, flowers, and flamingos—are not just nonsensical; they’re unconstitutional.

With the help of the Institute for Justice, the national law firm, Ricketts and Carroll are fighting back. On Nov. 19, the couple filed a lawsuit against the village of Miami Shores for violating their rights under the Florida Constitution.

All they wanted to do was grow food for themselves and their family. But this isn’t just about their little front-yard garden anymore. Indeed, they are part of a nationwide movement of small-scale food producers and consumers who are tired of the government dictating to them what foods they can grow, raise and even consume. After all, if the government can tell them what to plant in their front yard — and therefore, what they eat — what can’t it do?

As organic gardeners, Ricketts and Carroll have never believed in resorting to unnatural measures to protect their vegetables. But recent events have made them reconsider how they deal with unwanted pests. And there is no better repellant for meddlesome bureaucrats than a potent application of constitutional principles.

Ari Bargil, attorney, Institute for Justice, Miami

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