It’s been a while since I’ve covered a news story in which homeowners opt to defy cookie-cutter suburban uniformity by tending to something in their front yards other than an expanse of water-guzzling turf only to wind up ensnared in a drawn-out legal battle
One would hope that stories like these are becoming less common as communities across the country loosen their draconian grip on what is — and what isn’t — acceptable plant matter for a residential front yard. In reality, they aren’t, as some front-yard gardeners continue to feel the wrath of local governments and homeowners associations that aim to keep things neat, tidy and non-edible as possible.
In 2013, Tom Carroll and Hermine Ricketts of Miami Shores, a small burg of 10,500 Floridians that was originally a neighborhood within the city of Miami until it was incorporated as its own village in 1932, experienced this wrath first-hand when they were ordered by town officials to do away with the vegetable garden that had been thriving in front of their home for 17 years.
From the sounds of it, a majority of Carroll and Ricketts’ neighbors took no issue with the immaculately maintained front-yard fruit and veggie patch. Many likely envied it — and how could they not? Home to pomegranate and peach trees, strawberry and blueberry bushes and a wide array of leafy greens and colorful flowers, the garden was as beautiful as it was bountiful — a veritable front-yard salad bar. Sure, it stuck out amidst a suburban landscape dominated by polite, humdrum patches of manicured grass and aesthetically questionable statuary. But it was anything but unsightly — a good-looking, sustenance-providing sore thumb if there ever was one.
And as such, for years Miami Shores officials also took no issue with the couple’s edible landscape.
Then came a new village zoning ordinance that called for front-yard conformity and dictated what residents could plant on their property. Vegetable gardens weren’t outlawed outright but they were relegated to backyards. As reported by the Miami Herald, the crackdown was prompted by a complaint issued by a single neighbor. Whether or not said neighbor was new to the area or had simply been harboring ill-will toward Carroll and Ricketts and their garden for well over a decade is unclear.
Faced with $50 per day fines for disobeying the new ordinance, Caroll and Ricketts were forced to uproot their not-grandfathered-in organic garden, which, in total contained over 75 different types of veg including kale, onions, Swiss chard, spinach and Asian cabbage.
And as Ari Bargill, an attorney with Virginia-based nonprofit Institute for Justice pointed out to NPR back in 2013, only vegetables were singled out in the village-wide ban — not flowers, fruit or hideous water features. “You can plant fruit, you can have flowers, you can adorn your property with pink flamingos — but you cannot have vegetables,” Bargill explained. “That is almost the definition of irrationality.”
Despite the loss of their front-yard veggie patch, Carroll and Ricketts weren’t going out with a fight. Represented by the Institute for Justice, the couple sued Miami Shores, claiming that the veggie-prohibiting ordinance violates their constitutional rights. The Institute for Justice says the couple's case "aims to vindicate the right of all Americans to peacefully use their own property to support their own families."
Three years later, the lawsuit is now unfolding in the Miami-Dade County courtroom of Circuit Judge Monica Gordo. During a June 8 hearing, Bargill squared off against Richard Sarafan, an attorney for the village. The latter argued to the judge that the village is within its right to dictate what is grown — or isn’t grown — in the front yards of homeowners while making it abundantly clear that vegetables are great, so long as they are kept out of sight in backyards.
“There is no vegetable ban in Miami Shores,” argued. “It’s a farce. A ruse.”
“There certainly is not fundamental right to grow vegetables in your front yard,” Sarafan claimed. “Aesthetics and uniformity are legitimate government purposes. Not every property can lawfully be used for every purpose.”
The Associated Press goes on to note that Sarafan mentions grass, sod and “living ground cover” as acceptable forms of front-yard vegetation within village limits.
Bargill argued that the village’s front-yard vegetable ban violates the property rights of Carroll and Ricketts under the Florida Constitution while also defying the equal protection clause given that it targets vegetables — and vegetables alone.
While the vegetables themselves have declined to comment publicly, Carroll has spoken on their behalf: "It’s important that we have the right to do something on our own property. We’re just trying to grow vegetables.”
Judge Gordo will issue her ruling on the now 3-year-old legal battle at some point over the coming weeks. As the AP notes, it’s unclear whether or not the judge’s decision will warrant the need for a full trial. Whatever the ruling, both attorneys are likely to appeal.