Miami Shores

‘It’s a healing process.’ Couple plants front-yard veggies again after law changes.

As Tom Carroll wheeled his wife, Hermine Ricketts, into their Miami Shores garden, she smiled and looked toward the sky.

“The sun feels good.”

While the couple watched, neighbors, friends and law clerks from the Institute for Justice helped plant jalapeño peppers, cherry tomatoes and heirloom squash in the front corner of their lush garden. The front yard was filled with carefully plotted sections of flowering bushes, mint plants and other greens meant to attract the butterfly population that inhabits the garden.

But until Monday, not a vegetable was in sight. Ricketts and Carroll were celebrating July 1, the day a law sparked by their efforts went into effect. No longer can local governments regulate where residents can grow their vegetable gardens.

The new law was motivated by a legal battle going back to May 2013, when the Miami Shores Village Council amended its zoning code to prohibit front-yard vegetable gardens in the name of “protecting the distinctive character of Miami Shores Village.” The couple either had to get rid of the vegetables or face fines of $50 per day.

“Gardening is wonderful,” Ricketts said. “I feel victory. ... I have no words.”

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The couple, who grew cabbage, spinach, beets, scallions, tomatoes and eggplant in their front yard for more than 20 years, had to dig up their garden, which can’t grow in the backyard due to insufficient sunlight.

In November 2013, they joined with national firm Institute for Justice to challenge the ban, and were unsuccessful on the initial summary judgment. In November 2017, Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal upheld the ruling, which the couple appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case.

The couple’s attorney, Ari Bargil, decided that going to the Legislature to change state law was the logical next step. While the Senate passed a bill during the 2018 session, the clock ran out and it never got a House companion. In 2019, a bill passed both chambers and was eventually signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“It’s always challenging trying to get things done in the Legislature because there’s a lot of push and pull,” Bargil said. “But thankfully, this is an issue that seemingly everyone could get behind. I think what you’re seeing is a reflection of everyone’s general understanding that you should be able to grow vegetables in your front yard.”

The main opponent to the bill, which passed in May, has been the Florida League of Cities, which has argued that the unique aesthetic of Florida’s cities is brought about through code enforcement. It is also against the idea of preemption, or the state’s passing laws to undo local ordinances.

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Aside from those who are part of homeowners or condominium associations, the law protects gardeners from local government enforcement.

Sen. Rob Bradley, who led the charge in the Senate, said Monday that the new law should remind Floridians of the rights they have as residents to do as they please.

“As we approach July 4, this is a small but useful reminder that the people run the show in America,” the Fleming Island Republican wrote in a text. “Not an overreaching government.”

Ricketts has faced various health problems due to what she says was the stress of the legal battle, and told reporters Monday that she looks forward to returning to her garden, or “her healing place.”

“You’re down on the earth, touching the soil, kneeling on the ground. ... It’s a healing process,” she said. “I’m hoping to get back in the garden and spend time outside doing things I love. The healing things in the sunshine.”

Mary Benton, the couple’s neighbor and friend, said the vegetable garden issue has been divisive in the neighborhood, where she has lived for six years. The legal battle made it worse, she said, and she’s glad the state stepped in to pass a law.

“This was the best way to solve it,” she said, tearing up as Ricketts was wheeled out of the house. “I’m hoping this puts [Ricketts] on the road to recovery. It just makes me want to cry.”

Samantha J. Gross is a politics and policy reporter for the Miami Herald. Before she moved to the Sunshine State, she covered breaking news at the Boston Globe and the Dallas Morning News.