It’s been the feel-good story of the year.
Tom and Laura Huth-Rhoades moved to Lowell last year and set about trying to make a difference in the community. One of the ways they did that was by fixing up their house at the corner of E. Main and Grove Streets and planting a garden between the sidewalk and roadway.
Dubbed the Help-Yourself-Garden, the garden was about more than putting fresh vegetables on the table in the Huth-Rhoades house. Instead, the couple invited the community to help themselves to the produce, and a local Girl Scout troop even become involved by building a stand where people could easily leave and take produce.
However, the City of Lowell now says the garden must go. In a letter addressed to Laura Huth and dated August 30, 2018, the city cites a zoning violation, saying:
An unkempt “community garden” whereas the original agreement was ‘ground cover only,’ which is located in the city-owned right-of-way. This violates zoning section 7.02 under R-2 permitted use, as well as Article III, Section 23-47(2).
Section 7.02 lists the uses, such as single-family dwellings and two-family dwellings, which are allowed in the R-2 district which is where the Help-Yourself-Garden is located. Section 23-47 states that residents are required to maintain their property. However, Section 23-47(c) notes:
“This article is not intended to prohibit or discourage the practice of developing natural groundcover areas, prairie yards, or gardens and lawns using accepted xerophytic plantings and techniques. It is intended to abate and eliminate situations where property is in a state of actual neglect and shows no distinct plan or pattern of upkeep or maintenance.”
Lowell’s First Look has requested clarification from the City of Lowell regarding the apparent conflict between the ordinance violation and Section 23-47(c).
History of Communication Between City, Residents
Editor’s Note: This section was updated at 9pm on Tuesday, September 4, to more accurately reflect the communication between city staff and Tom and Laura Huth-Rhoades.
Laura Huth-Rhoades told Lowell’s First Look she had difficulty communicating with City Hall right from the start. City staff appeared reluctant to provide details regarding which ordinance would prohibit the planting of a garden in the right-of-way. While a meeting between Huth-Rhoades and City Manager Mike Burns was scheduled for May 10, he denied the request for a garden in the right-of-way on May 2. He cited city liability should someone be injured in the garden as well as a concern that the city would be responsible for restoring the garden should the right-of-way need to be accessed for utility work. The meeting was cancelled on May 3 after Huth-Rhoades sent a lengthy email questioning the logic behind the denial.
Lowell’s First Look submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for city documents regarding the case. We will have additional updates and a more thorough timeline once that material has been reviewed.
We received the following response from City Manager Mike Burns after initially publishing this article.
We so appreciate all efforts by our residents to improve or to beautify our community. We applaud the efforts of Girl Scout Troupe #4129 to create the Give & Take Farm stand, which is now located at 906 E. Main.
It is clear the troupe gave a lot of time and attention to this project, which is designed to encourage the free exchange of produce between those who have and those who need in our community. We recognize that this is a worthwhile project and admire their creativity and ingenuity.
However, the location of this garden and the stand it supports have given rise to a number of complaints. The homeowner was allowed to place traditional ground cover in the city-owned right-of-way instead of grass, not establish a community garden. Neighbors have complained about the increase in the number and speed of cars traveling by 906 E. Main each day to view the garden. We have also had complaints about the structure, which is out of character with the residential neighborhood.
Specifically, the Community Garden violates Chapter 7 of the City’s R2 residential zoning ordinances as it not a use permitted by right nor is it eligible for a special land use within this district of the City. The farm stand violates section 4.08 of our zoning ordinances in that it is an accessory building that doesn’t comply with our code. The farm stand also violates section 4.10 in that it didn’t get prior zoning approval before being built.
As a community, we have developed ordinances and regulations to foster good relationships between residents, businesses, nonprofits and other organizations. Lowell has long taken the approach that we do not go looking for code violations. We do respond to alleged violations after we receive a complaint, which is what we are doing in this case.
We’d like to recommend a solution that will preserve the hard work of the Girls Scouts and the spirit of the garden exchange in a more appropriate location in our community.
- Leaving the garden and farm stand in place through the end of September, which is about the end of our growing season.
- Exploring a new location for the garden and farm stand for the 2019 season. We have had preliminary talks with our Kent District Library branch, which is interested in learning more and perhaps hosting both the garden and the stand next summer.
- We could also look at expanding our current community garden in Creekside Park and adding the farm stand to support both gardens, which both the Lowell Library and the Creekside community garden have more and better parking as well as higher foot traffic, meet appropriate zoning requirements and would broaden the garden exchange and make it available to more residents – and isn’t that the idea?
- We could also look to make room for a second community garden at another location on city-owned property that would also offer better parking and access.
- Returning the right-of-way in front of 906 E. Main to either grass or low groundcover after the garden is removed.
We are hopeful that all involved will be amenable to exploring a solution that preserves the rights of neighbors while supporting the good work of the Girls Scouts and the garden exchange concept.
This is the original text that appeared under the subheading above. After publication, we became aware that it may not accurately represent the communication between city staff and Tom and Laura Huth-Rhoades. We have updated the section above for accuracy but are leaving the original section here to maintain transparency.
Laura Huth-Rhoades told Lowell’s First Look she has had difficulty communicating with City Hall right from the start. Originally from Illinois, Huth-Rhoades tried to make an appointment with City Mayor Mike DeVore to introduce herself shortly after she and her husband moved to Lowell. She says her requests were ignored, at which time she contacted City Manager Mike Burns. Neither responded to her and a meeting never took place.
Instead, she continued on her garden plans until receiving an email from the city expressing concern over the removal of grass between the sidewalk and Grove Street. That began a lengthy back-and-forth correspondence with the city manager and other city officials. Huth-Rhoades notes that the Help-Yourself-Garden has always been a joint venture between herself and her husband and yet Burns would remove her husband from his replies while continuing to include other city staff on the email chain.
At the end of the emails, Burns apparently said ground cover would be ok for the section and Huth-Rhoades continued to plant the garden. It has been open for people to take produce since July 15.
Lowell’s First Look is currently in the process of obtaining documentation regarding the garden to verify Huth-Rhoades’s version of events and what led to the ordinance violation. We have reached out to Burns and Police Chief Steve Bukala but did not receive a response prior to publication.
It is expected this issue will be brought before City Council during the citizen comments section of tonight’s regular meeting.
This is a developing story and will be updated when more information become available.