What’s the correct response to an orderly, but dumb, city policy?

I’m not sure, but I’d like to share this example as a way to have a discussion. This past November there was a news report out of Miami Shores, Florida, where a couple had filed a lawsuit against the city in an effort to keep their vegetable garden.

Miami Shores village leaders, unhappy with Ricketts green thumb, ordered her and husband Tom Carroll to dig up the bounty they have been growing for the past 17 years in their front yard — or face fines of $50 a day. A front yard garden violates a zoning ordinance, village officials say.

The couple sued Tuesday, accusing Miami Shores of violating their rights under the Florida Constitution

This kind of thing happens all the time. City with a stupid code and mindless enforcement officials mix with uppity neighbor and what do you get?

We all know exactly how this went down. Snooty neighbor with a righteous sense of what a front yard should look like doesn’t walk up the street and simply talk to their neighbor – why bother when the city will intervene for you – but instead calls the city zoning office to complain. The zoning office, which is programmed not to think but to treat every complaint in a fair and serious manner, logs the call into their long list of ongoing zoning violations. Ultimately, someone from the city is sent out to document whether there is a violation of the code.

The city official probably never spoke to the property owner with the garden, never found out that it had been there for 17 years, never considered that it might actually look good and be respectful of the neighborhood. Nope. It didn’t meet the code and so a citation is issued with the “threat” of future fines (which is a near empty threat as such local fines are really expensive and time consuming to enforce).

Image from Google Earth. Click on the image to link to Google Maps and explore the neighborhood.

Here’s the comical thing about bureaucracies. The Village of Miami Shores actually has an entire section on their website about “Going Green” (a term whose use denotes intentions, which for some are more important than deeds). For residential properties, there are three “green” efforts highlighted. One is a renewable energy program, one on water restrictions and the third on “Florida Friendly” landscaping. The landscaping section recommends one book, the Florida Yards and Neighborhoods Handbook which, you guessed it, repeatedly references vegetable gardens as an option for a green yard.

So let’s give this village the benefit of the doubt; they want to do the right thing but are in the messy process of transforming from a 1950’s approach to a modern one. In time they will get there, but it will likely take a lot more stupid and embarrassing incidents like this one to resolve the issues where their left hand doesn’t communicate with their right.

So back to the original question: what do we do with an orderly but dumb city?

I’d like to hear what you think, but for me, I do nothing more than what is being done right now. Shame is a very powerful motivator and I would heap it on in grand proportions. Of course if I lived there I would be pushing for changes, but from the outside I think we just accept this as the messy, chaotic but smart way in which awareness is raised and change happens.

Let me contrast that with what I wouldn’t do. I would NEVER try to deal with this situation with some type of state or federal legislation. I referenced the Florida Yards and Neighborhoods Handbook earlier. Well, here is what you will find in Florida Statutes, Chapter 373.185:

(c) A local government ordinance may not prohibit or be enforced so as to prohibit any property owner from implementing Florida-friendly landscaping on his or her land.

Okay Chuck, what harm could this do? Of course we want people using Florida-friendly landscaping so how could this provision in state statutes not be good?

Well….we all want them doing it until we don’t. This is today’s conventional wisdom – great – but what about tomorrow's? We believe we know so much more today than those fools decades ago who recommended turf grass (not to mention highways through cities, urban renewal and zoning by race), but won’t the people in decade or two believe the same thing about us? We should hope they do.

We need to figure this stuff out at the local level. The village should have told the property owner that complained to go talk to their neighbor and work it out, that nobody was being injured or killed and that this was a neighborhood level problem. The state should be helping the village to understand options for actually going green, helping identify best practices and evolving knowledge from within and outside the state, but need not be in the business of directing a specific guide book as landscaping gospel for time in memoriam.

My preferred approach would be more chaotic and messy. There will be neighborhoods that prohibit vegetable gardens and maybe even some that require AstroTurf lawns, but there will be a lot of them that take the initiative and push the boundaries of what a green approach really is. It is those latter places that will push the median in the right direction, will drag the rest kicking and screaming into the future. If we want strong town, we need to be making room for them.

In a world where so many people now have access to education and cheap tools of innovation, innovation that happens from the bottom up tends to be chaotic but smart. Innovation that happens from the top down tends to be orderly but dumb.

-Carlson’s Law