Hermine Ricketts and her husband Tom Carroll may grow fruit trees and flowers in the front yard of their Miami Shores house. They may park a boat or jet ski in their driveway. They may place statues, fountains, gnomes, pink flamingoes or Santa in a Speedo on their property.
Vegetables, however, are not allowed.
Ricketts and Carroll thought they were gardeners when they grew tomatoes, beets, scallions, spinach, kale and multiple varieties of Asian cabbage. But according to a village ordinance that restricts edible plants to backyards only, they were actually criminals. They didn’t think they were engaged in a Swiss chard conspiracy or eggplant vice, yet they were breaking the law.
Florida’s 3rd District Court of Appeal upheld Miami Shores’ ban on front-yard vegetable gardens in a recent decision, so the couple will take their case to the Florida Supreme Court. They argue, on behalf of gardeners everywhere, that the village’s restriction is unconstitutional and an infringement on their property rights.
“That’s what government does – interferes in people’s lives,” Ricketts said. “We had that garden for 17 years. We ate fresh meals every day from that garden. Since the village stepped its big foot in it, they have ruined our garden and my health.”
Ricketts and Carroll did not face jail time for brandishing green thumbs, but they did face $50 daily fines after the village amended its ordinance in 2013. They had to dig up their garden – which won’t grow in their north-facing backyard because of a lack of sun. But they have continued to fight Miami Shores in court with help from the Institute for Justice, a national non-profit libertarian law firm.
“This decision gives local governments tremendous leeway to regulate harmless activities in the name of aesthetics,” said Institute lawyer Ari Bargil. “It gives government the power to prohibit homeowners from growing plants in their front yards simply because they intend to eat them.”
The court ruled that Miami Shores has the right under its code to control design and landscaping standards to protect the appearance of the village and preserve “property values and the enjoyment of property rights by minimizing and reducing conflicts among various land uses.”
Village Attorney Richard Sarafan argued that while it’s popular to blame big, bad government for being intrusive, municipalities must safeguard their zoning authority lest they open a Pandora’s box of unsightly exceptions. Without any arbiter of taste, residents could get stuck living next to a polka-dot house with pigs taking mud baths by the garage and an Oscar Mayer Wienermobile on the swale. The couple’s front yard was filled with pots and cluttered with stakes that belonged in the backyard where they chose to have a swimming pool instead, the village said.
“It’s all about conformity. Miami Shores wants to be a mini Coral Gables,” Ricketts said of another tidy, upscale South Florida city known for strict zoning regulations that at one time included a ban on pickup trucks in driveways at night. “What is the definition of edible? I can go into any front yard and find something edible because every plant has an edible part.
“Miami Shores claims to promote green living. What could be more green than walking out your front door and picking what you’ve grown rather than driving to the store and buying what has been trucked in, in quantities that contribute to food waste?”
Bargil also objected to the court’s conclusion that “it is rational for government to ban the cultivation of plants to be eaten as part of a meal, as opposed to the cultivation of plants for ornamental reasons.”
Ricketts called the village short-sighted for encouraging the cultivation of “useless grass.”
“By killing gardens we are also killing bees and butterflies, the pollinators of our food supply,” she said.
The court said that residents who don’t like the village ordinance can petition the Village Council to change it or vote for council members who will change it.
But in the meantime, the village has uprooted a source of sustenance and joy for Ricketts, 62, and Carroll, 59.
Their case is part of the Institute for Justice’s National Food Freedom Initiative, which includes litigation on behalf of home bakers in Minnesota,Wisconsin and New Jersey, a skim milk producer in northern Florida, raw milk farmers in Oregon and craft brewers in Texas.