Vegetable garden in crosshairs of code enforcement

By Margaret Kavanagh , Reporter
Last Updated: Tuesday, November 13, 2012, 5:26 PM EST

Code Enforcement Officers told them their garden had to go. But the homeowner put a fight and now city leaders say they are reevaluating their policies -- and will possibly change the rules.

The home in question is in Orlando – specifically the College Park area.

There are over 20 fruits and vegetables in the front garden outside the Helvenstons' house.

The Helvenstons' said they were shocked to get a letter in the mail a few weeks ago from the City of Orlando Code Enforcement Officer stating they had failed to "maintain ground covers" on the property and needed to correct the problem.

That meant their property was not properly maintained.

“This is more than just about our little garden," said Jason Helvenston. "This is about our constitutional right to grow vegetables on your own land.”

He called the city and said he offered to put mulch and pine straw down.

"They said not that would not be acceptable," Helvenston said. "At that time I said I would put up a white picket fence. They said that would not be acceptable, at which time I said, 'well I’m not going to rip up my garden.' And I specifically said please clarify that the only option I have is to rip up my garden and replace it with ground cover, and they said yes.”

They said the complaint came from an out-of-town landlord who was concerned about her property value going down.

“We should really be encouraged to grow our vegetable gardens," said Jennifer Helvenston. "Not only for financial reasons, but for health reasons and community reasons.”

We reached out to the city of Orlando. They said the Code Enforcement Officer was doing her job when she informed the Helvenstons that they were in violation of the rules. However, city officials said they are now looking at changing their policies.

They sent us a written statement:

"The City is not requiring the property owner to tear up his garden. The City of Orlando is committed to environmental responsibility and encourages the use of vegetable gardens as a sustainable source of producing food. The City is working with the property owner to address a concern shared by a neighbor. The concern was related to the appearance of the lack of ground cover. 

"The City does not have an ordinance governing vegetable gardens in the front yard. Our existing landscape code never contemplated front yard food production, hence the confusion. As society’s tastes change, we continue to adapt our development and landscape codes.

"To assist with this process and the topic of sustainability as a whole, the City has created a Green Works Task Force. The Task Force will help develop Orlando’s plan for sustainability, which will serve as the road map to steer future policies, developments and investments. The Task Force will review the current land development code as it relates to landscaping and explore options and standards."

The City Code requires (Sec. 60.207. - General Requirements) “ground covers shall be planted in a manner so as to present a finished appearance with reasonably complete coverage.”  

“Now they seem to be looking in a positive direction of which to include gardens in the future so this doesn’t happen to other people,” Jason Helvenston said.

They called the complaint a blessing and said it has highlighted an important issue.

The Helvenstons said they have a meeting scheduled with city planning and code enforcement officials this Friday.

There are a few different petitions being circulated in support of the vegetable garden.