When It Comes To Community Gardens, City Hall And Its Crazy Procedures Are Like Agent Orange

I just want to make a small point about the way Dallas City Hall does business. Not a huge point. City Hall tries to make things go away.

It reacts to irritating stimuli the way I react to noises from the brakes in my car. Ignore them, and they will cease. The problem comes when City Hall starts feeling that way about us. After all, if we all cease to be, who will be left? Throughout history, even in storied times of the ancient Incas, never has there been a city consisting entirely of city employees.

Plus, we have a right to be here.

Want to start a community garden?
City Hall may have a few hoops for you to jump through.
Want to start a community garden? City Hall may have a few hoops for you to jump through.

So what is this all about? Believe it or not—community gardens. City Hall wants community gardens and the fresh vegetable fiends behind them to just...go...away. Away. Just go. Fade. Be no more. Please. Die.

Why? To be fair, City Hall is not merely crazy. Since I started writing about the community garden movement in Dallas ("Dallas Has a Dirty Secret," October 8), a number of city council members have communicated privately to me their feeling that I'm disingenuous. The idea that community gardens are manifestly and obviously a good thing or, at the very least, benign is not the least bit true, they say, and I know it.

I do. I believe I have written about this. Last January 14, I wrote a column about a neighborhood that had been riven in the past by one of those conservation district battles—whether or not to impose rules on what you can do with your own house. Those are the worst. Households are divided. People roll out the heavy cannon.

But later when somebody tried to create a community garden in that same neighborhood, the two sides, rebs and blue-bellies alike, locked arms and marched shoulder-to-shoulder against the damned gardeners. That's something.

The council members are right. The creation of a community garden can conceivably become a divisive issue, in which case it becomes a pain in the ass for city council members.

By the same token, city staffers are not wrong, entirely, in their wariness. And we citizens are not pure as the driven snow, either. In our own wisdom as voters and taxpayers we refuse to fund the city's park department at anything like an adequate level. Next time you see a park department crew out there on the street, take a good gander at their equipment. They're driving trucks the Joad family would have disdained in Grapes of Wrath.

The staff figures nobody is going to give it any money to pay for regulating community gardens. So here we are, back at our very familiar ground zero in City Hall affairs. Let's just stall this thing, and maybe after a while it will go away. People will become interested in a new dance craze instead, or fancy hats or aerobic leapfrog or something that doesn't involve real estate, and City Hall will be able to heave a vast sigh of relief. The trick is how to stall it off until they forget.

To wit: the special use permit.

At a recent city council briefing, staff suggested one way of dealing with people who want to establish community gardens in Dallas would be requiring them to apply for what is called a "special use permit" for their garden.

Sound reasonable? Oh, no. Believe me. It's not reasonable. It's so not reasonable, and everybody at City Hall knows it's so not reasonable that it can only be described as deliberately and fiendishly not reasonable.

Making people get a special use permit for a garden is what we might call a "ruby red shoes" requirement. Sure, Dorothy, you can go back to Kansas. But before we get into all that, would you mind doing a little favor?

I spent last week researching special use permits on my own but also talking to some of the professional lobbyists and lawyers who help well-heeled commercial and institutional clients get them.

I couldn't possibly even reproduce the full requirements in this limited space, so here is a mere sampling of what you would need to do in order to get a special use permit for a community garden (not making this up):

You need a letter of authorization stating that you are authorized by the landowner to have a community garden. Check. A land-use statement stating your reason for wanting to have a community garden, size of your garden, current zoning of your land, current zoning of all the land around your garden, current and proposed uses of any existing structures, current and proposed uses of any proposed structures, proposed use of garden (which I think would be "garden"), maximum number of children attending, ingress and egress plan for children, parking spaces, proposed conditions such as hours of operation. Check check check.

Then you need to go to Room 5CN of City Hall and get two city of Dallas zoning maps to submit back to the city of Dallas. An interesting wrinkle: I learned last week from the lobbyists that the suburbs don't require you to give them documents they already have. They gather those for themselves, from themselves. At Dallas City Hall, you have to go hunt those down at City Hall, pay for them and then hand them back to City Hall.

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