At the top of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s list of the top 10 most common code violations, the stipulations concerning yard and lot maintenance are plainly stated: Plants may not exceed 12 inches in height unless they are “healthy trees, shrubs, or produce for human consumption grown in a tended and cultivated garden.”
This is perhaps how Denise Morrison knew that her front yard garden — which contained over a 100 types of plants, ranging from pecans to herbal remedies — was in compliance when city officials leveled it last August. According to a local news station, city officials stated that “everything must go,” despite meeting with Morrison personally and seeing that the garden was being utilized as a food source and for medicinal herbs.
This case is just one example of city governments strictly enforcing land use codes that prioritize the aesthetics of a property over its utility.
Karl Tricomo of St. Louis, Mo., has similarly endured the harassment of city officials who claim his organic garden is in violation of city code. Even after five visits to the property by city officials, the issue of whether or not the garden is in violation remains ongoing, according to the local news station Fox2Now.
Quarrels between city officials and individual local gardeners bring to light questions about the range of a city government’s power to impose conditions on a property due to concerns that extend beyond fundamental priorities like safety, health and welfare.
In the 1909 decision Varney & Green v. Williams, the Supreme Court held that:
That the promotion of aesthetic or artistic considerations is a proper object of governmental care will probably not be disputed. But so far as we are advised, it has never been held that these considerations alone will justify, as an exercise of the police power, a radical restriction of the right of an owner of property to use his property in an ordinary and beneficial way.
Clearly, city codes have since taken on aesthetics, and sometimes incorporating them into planning and governance has done significant good. But when an ordinance does not reflect real value — or even goes so far as to reduce value — of public or private land, city officials need to be more discretionary in how codes are enforced. Even as cities try and balance a gamut of priorities and viewpoints, the value of something like an urban garden ought to be discernible by common sense, let alone as something contributing to greater sustainability in cities.
In Morrison’s case, city officials neglected to acknowledge an individual’s personal needs, which cuts the debate short of even mentioning how the garden may have contributed to Tulsa in a broader sense. These questions of what is good for a city and its residents need to be considered in real time. Morrison’s personal circumstances, and the condition of cities in the 21st century, have needs that are perhaps not outlined in existent city codes.
But for Morrison, the issue is much more clear-cut: “Not only are the plants my livelihood, they’re my food and I was unemployed at the time and had no food left, no medicine left, and I didn’t have insurance,” Morrison was reported saying. “They took away my life and livelihood.”