A bill preventing local governments from banning vegetable gardens has cropped up in the Legislature again this year, but this time lawmakers say it’s better set up for success.
The Senate Community Affairs Committee unanimously backed the measure (SB 82), which prohibits a county or municipality from regulating vegetable gardens on residential properties and voids any existing ordinance of that nature.
Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican, filed the bill for the legislative session that starts March 5. The Senate passed a similar bill of his during the 2018 session, but the clock ran out and a House version was never filed.
This time, Rep. Elizabeth Fetterhoff, R-DeLand, has filed the House version of Bradley’s bill (HB 145), which is identical in language.
She said Wednesday that the government has “no business” interfering with people who may be growing vegetables to save money or practice a hobby.
“Just yesterday, I toured a garden in my district that is being set up to help educate and empower its community through self-sustainability practices like gardening,” Fetterhoff said. “Yet in some areas of our state, local governments place arbitrary restrictions on their citizens’ right to provide for themselves using their own private property.”
The vegetable garden proposal is rooted in a legal dispute about an ordinance in Miami Shores that banned the gardens from being planted in front yards. Hermine Ricketts and Tom Carroll sued the village, and in November 2017, an appeals court upheld a ruling that the couple does not have a constitutional right to grow vegetables in their front yard. They appealed the ruling to the Florida Supreme Court, which declined to grant review.
The couple was being charged $50 in daily fines and eventually had to dig up their 17 years of work. The ordinance restricts edible plants to backyards only, but their north-facing backyard didn’t get enough sun for their tomatoes, beets, kale and multiple varieties of Asian cabbage.
Bradley, who also filed the bill during the 2018 legislative session, said he is not anti-home rule but instead believes having a garden is a “fundamental right.”
“When one thinks of a code enforcement officer going onto property that you own and requiring you under threat of fine to tear up a garden that you have prepared to grow your own food, that to me is not consistent [...] our constitution,” he said at the bill’s hearing on Monday.
The tiff in Miami Shores was not the first time local governments have caught criticism for regulating aesthetics. Coral Gables included a ban on pickup trucks in driveways until the ban was put on the 2012 November ballot and overturned by voters.
Those opposed to the current bill, like the Florida League of Cities, have concerns over people growing vegetables commercially or cornstalks that are too tall.
Ari Bargil, the Miami attorney who represented Ricketts and Carroll, said those are things that are already covered by existing owning codes in most municipalities across the state.
He added that the bill’s very specific language will mitigate any other local preemption issues.
“It’s clearly limited only to treatment of vegetable gardens differently than any other aspect of a front yard garden,” he said. “What they can’t do, is treat vegetables differently from, say, a rose bush. This is a critical thing for people who want to enjoy their property and take control over what they put into their bodies.”
Bargil said restrictions on gardens in the first place are “arbitrary and frankly silly” since there’s no unifying aesthetic quality of a vegetable garden. It’s different, for instance, from tall structures that may inhibit first responders, or mandatory setback requirements to keep the sidewalks clear.
The League of Cities’ legislative counsel, David Cruz, said that while compromises like setback requirements or height restrictions are good, lawmakers should still respect local government’s authority to make decisions on ordinances for their communities.
“Local communities use those regulations to shape the nature and the characters of their communities,” he said. “That’s why you have Coral Gables looking very different from Perry, Florida.”
Cruz said bills like this one preempt local laws, and gave the example of a 2013 Orlando ordinance that allows residents to use 60 percent of their front yard as a vegetable garden.
“This bill would void that ordinance,” he said. “It would undo the good work of a city to compromise on this issue.”