Miami Shores sued for ordering couple to remove vegetable garden

For retired architect Hermine Ricketts, plotting out her prized vegetable garden — with its okra, kale, lettuce, onions and a dozen or more varieties of Asian cabbage — was a labor of love.

But Miami Shores village leaders, unhappy with Ricketts green thumb, ordered her and husband Tom Carroll to dig up the bounty they have been growing for the past 17 years in their front yard — or face fines of $50 a day. A front yard garden violates a zoning ordinance, village officials say.

The couple sued Tuesday, accusing Miami Shores of violating their rights under the Florida Constitution. Ricketts never had to visit the produce aisle of a supermarket for vegetables. Now she does.

“We are already feeling the impact of shopping for overpriced organic food,” she said Tuesday, standing near a plot where her eggplants used to grow.

The couple are not seeking money; they’re suing for $1. They just want to be able to restore their vegetable garden in their front yard.

The village’s zoning code violates some of Florida’s homeowners’ inalienable rights, which include the right to “acquire, possess and protect property,” said the couple’s attorney Ari Bargil.

“The right to grow and harvest your own food on your very own property is certainly part of that right to acquire, possess and protect property,” said Bargil, who is with the nonprofit libertarian public interest firm, Institute for Justice, based in Arlington, Va.

The Institute for Justice made local headlines in 2011 when its attorneys represented a Hialeah street vendor suing the city for prohibiting merchants like him from selling goods within 300 feet of brick-and-mortar stores that sell similar products. The case is still pending.

The Shores suit was one of several the institute filed recently around the country, challenging food regulations.

The Miami Shores ordinance specifically bans vegetables. Fruits, flowers, garden gnomes and plastic flamingoes are fine.

Village officials issued a statement Tuesday, saying they simply responded to a complaint back in May. Zoning inspectors visited, cited the couple and gave them until Aug. 31 to get rid of the garden.

“The Village Code, for decades, has permitted vegetable gardens in our residents’ backyards, but for aesthetic purposes and otherwise, vegetable gardens are not permissible in the front yards,” the statement read.

Successfully challenging aesthetic regulations can be difficult.

In Coral Gables, for example, an ordinance used to prohibit residents from parking pickup trucks in their own driveways at night.

In 2003, a truck owner challenged the law, which allowed an ugly car but not a top-of-the-line luxury pickup truck.

Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal upheld the ordinance, saying the matter was within the discretion of the city government. And the state Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

However, city voters, in a referendum, repealed the ordinance last year.

Miami Shores Village Attorney Richard Sarafan said the Gables case is a good example of the discretion a municipality has in deciding how best to keep the community looking neat.

“It’s not easy to overcome a municipality’s right to regulate aesthetics,” he said. “Clearly there is an aesthetic purpose here.”

Without the Miami Shores zoning code, people could turn their full front yards into vegetable gardens, Sarafan said.

“That’s not harmonious with our community,” he said. “This is not an agricultural zoning area.”

Ricketts and Carroll say they moved their large garden from the shady backyard because the best sunlight during Florida’s prime growing season — late fall to early spring — hits their front yard.

“You can’t force a plant that requires six hours of sunlight to thrive on only two hours of sunlight,” Ricketts said.

Tuesday morning, Ricketts looked at her bare garden as she described its seasonal yield — sweet potatoes, broccoli and mache, a salad green not commonly found in supermarkets. Now, the only thing left are some herbs and a couple of fruit trees, including a papaya.

Over the years, she had carefully designed the neat garden beds, complete with a water-efficient drip-irrigation system. Also an artist, she decorated some of the grassy areas with figurine-sized sculpted busts.

Near the edge of the front yard, a plastic, hot-pink flamingo juts out among the bare garden beds.

“It’s now my symbol,” Ricketts said. “It’s OK to have a cheap plastic thing shipped in from abroad, but it is illegal to plant organic vegetables in your front yard.”

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