RALEIGH — When Arthur Gordon came across an abandoned, dilapidated house on two acres of overgrown land three miles from his popular downtown Raleigh restaurant Irregardless Café, he envisioned a Garden of Eden.
The lot, the last undeveloped remnant of a 40-acre farm given to freed slaves in 1869, was about to go into foreclosure and was becoming a breeding ground for the illicit activities of bored teenagers, who were wandering there from Athens Drive High School across the street.
Gordon decided converting the property into a community vegetable garden would be the perfect way to give the kids something productive to do and supply his restaurant with fresh, organic produce.
The city of Raleigh recently passed a comprehensive development plan that will allow for such gardens as part of an effort to make the city “green” and “sustainable,” but not in Gordon’s neighborhood.
City Planning Director Mitch Silver said the city has “taken the lead on this whole urban agriculture movement” by allowing community gardens in East Raleigh, the poorest area of downtown Raleigh, but city officials have decided such gardens are not appropriate for the suburbs — especially if the owner of the garden wants to use some of the produce for profit.
The Well Fed Community Garden would serve two purposes — provide the restaurant’s customers affordable, top-quality food, and create a sense of community.
Gordon said he’s concerned about the rising cost of food – citing the costs of transportation, drought and the effect it will have on water prices, a weakening dollar, and the like.
“Having a little independence from all of those market forces is going to be comforting,” he said. “But the real hope is that we create a place for the community to gather, to spend time together, to enjoy what happens when you put your hands in the soil and start seeing things grow.”
Gordon and his wife Anya have invited an agriculture student from Central Carolina Community College to live in the house and manage the garden. They plan to invite their neighbors to work the land in exchange for learning gardening skills and taking home a share of the harvest.
“It’s inviting grandma back into the yard,” he said. “When you have the ability to nurture the soil, you have the ability to nurture the family. It invites kids to hang out in the yard, dogs to hang out in the yard. It’d be like the old days, where you used to see kids outside playing.”
Gordon hired a sustainable landscaping architect to draw up the plan for the garden.
“In a year or year and a half from now, once the trees get planted and the sod gets put down and the fences are completed, it’s going to be a Garden of Eden,” he said. “It’s just going to be gorgeous.”
He invited the neighbors to review his plans. “We had maybe 100 people show up,” he said. “They were all up there looking around saying, ‘When can we start working? We want to help you.’”
But not everyone is excited about Gordon’s garden. One woman sent the city planning department a four-page letter complaining about it, he said. She submitted photos of his greenhouse — which he has converted to a solarium to comply with zoning regulations — and of the empty space where 15 pine trees used to stand.
Gordon insists he intends to plant far more trees (mostly fruit trees) than he took out, and that the pine trees he cut down were less than 50 years old. He said he looked up the address of the woman who was complaining “so vociferously” about his garden “and she lives miles away, on the other side of the [Interstate 440] beltline.”
The city claims it has no record of such a complaint. A spokesman from the Public Affairs Department did, however, share a complaint from a woman who lives a couple of streets away from the garden. She expressed concerns about a chicken coop, an aquaculture area, beehives, and a greenhouse being so near her house.
Mitchell Silver — planning director for the city of Raleigh and president of the American Planning Association — said complaints like this one are why community gardens are not appropriate for the suburbs.
Under the city’s new Unified Development Ordinance — a set of rules for developers designed to create more urban density and less urban “sprawl” — only vacant lots zoned “Residential-10” can be used for community gardens. Gordon’s property is zoned “Residential-4.” The difference? Developers are allowed to build 10 housing units per acre in the former and 4 housing units per acre in the latter.
R-4 zones are typically used for single-family homes, where R-10 “is more of a multifamily development,” Silver said.
Most land zoned R-10 is located downtown or near downtown, in what is referred to as “East Raleigh.”
“Those are the places where we have a lot of what we call food deserts,” Silver said. “So we felt it was OK to have a community garden lot — without a house — there, if that’s what people want to do.”
But city planners did not “feel” it was OK to have “urban” gardens in the suburbs, no matter how close they were to downtown.
“We felt that if you bought a piece of property and you assumed you bought into a neighborhood, and then all of a sudden next door, there’s a garden that pops up, that we wanted to make sure it was in areas that people were comfortable with gardens being next door,” Silver said.
What if people in apartment buildings aren’t comfortable with gardens next door?
“I don’t know,” Silver said. “A lot of this came from testimony during the UDO process. A lot of neighbors came forward who felt that [because] most of the property where we zoned R-10 was in East Raleigh, not just downtown, but inside the beltline. They were fine with having those gardens in that location.”
There is nothing to stop Gordon from using his garden for personal use or “accessory” use, as Silver calls it.
“That’s something we encourage and we hope more people will do,” he said. “But he’s introducing a business in a residential area, and that is not permitted.”
He noted that participants in permitted community gardens, in R-10 zones, will be allowed to sell their produce off-site when the UDO takes effect in September.
Allowing community gardens to exist anywhere is progress enough, Silver said. “We’ve opened up huge portions of the city. We’ve taken the lead on this whole urban agricultural movement.”
If Gordon wants to build a community garden — one tended by multiple people and one whose produce could be sold — he has two choices, Silver said: Sell his property and buy a new parcel of land in an R-10 zone or apply for a “special use” permit once the UDO goes into effect.
The odds Gordon would have at obtaining a special use permit are unclear, as the city’s Board of Adjustment — which issues the permits — recently denied a similar “variance request,” which would have allowed him to use his property for something other than the zoning code permits.
Unlike a variance request, the public is allowed to weigh into the process of issuing a special use permit.
“I hope they’ll measure the volume of support against the volume of complaints, and use good judgment,” Gordon said. “Because this is exactly what everybody says they want to happen.”
In the meantime, Gordon plans to move forward with his plans. “The city can’t tell you that you can’t grow a garden, and it can’t tell you who you can give the vegetables to.”
Silver confirmed there are no limits on how large a residential “accessory-use” garden can be.
Gordon says he has the ability to “ride out” the city’s stubbornness on the sales aspect for several seasons. “This is a long-term investment,” he said. “It literally takes 5 to 7 years to get the dirt turned into soil.”
But eventually, for the garden to be of any use to the community, Gordon is going to have to get a return on that investment.
“All the key phrases right now are everybody wants to be local and sustainable,” he said. “The definition of sustainable means that you pay your bills. There are property taxes and mortgage payments involved. It’s not just a pie in the sky utopia.”
Sara Burrows is a contributor to Carolina Journal.