By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
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.
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.
Then you need to drive to 320 East Jefferson Ave., Room 318, and get two 18-by-24-inch tax plat maps with the area of your garden outlined in red. The lobbyists tell me that if you fail to outline your garden in red on the tax plat maps, the city will sideline your entire request for error. But they won't tell you. Only if you go back to check how things are going will you discover that you have failed to outline your garden in red on your tax plat maps. It's sort of like, "I am your teacher, Miss Wiesckoviczekalieski. Any student who misspells my name on his or her paper will have that paper discarded with a grade of zero. Ha. Ha. Ha."
You also need a correct metes and bounds description of your garden and/or an engineer's survey. Then you need to get back in your car and go to City Hall to have your metes and bounds description or survey tested in City Hall's computer to see if it "closes," meaning the city computer agrees that it works.
You need to go to the County Records Building and get a copy of the deed. You need to go back to City Hall with the deed and get a copy of the "tax certificate," showing that the taxes are paid, and another certificate showing there are no liens on the property, both of which you get from City Hall in order to give back to City Hall.
You need to fill out a traffic impact worksheet. If the traffic impact worksheet comes out a certain way (sort of like those personality quizzes in magazines), then you will need to hire a traffic engineer to do a traffic study for your garden.
You need 10 folded site plans, all oversized from Kinko's at considerable expense, and 10 folded landscape plans. By the way, you have to submit all of this stuff twice—once for the staff and again for your hearing before the city plan commission, which we are coming to. The staff can't give their copy to the plan commission. And don't ask. It's like Ms. Wiesckoviczekalieski. Just obey or kiss your ass good-bye.
You need to submit a completed tree survey. If you don't know how to do a tree survey, I don't know what to tell you. Go to tree survey school. Every little chance we get, let's pick up the pace, OK?
You need a list of your partners, principals and officers, a completed application form and several checks. It's sort of hard to add up. A check for $1,170 for the privilege of filing the application. A check to pay for the signs the city will post to warn the neighbors of your plans, at $10 apiece. A check for something like $300, maybe more, to pay for the legal advertisements the city will publish to notify people.
There's so much I have left out, like screened off-street parking, enhanced vehicular pavement, permeable vehicular pavement, 2-caliper-inch trees, genus names for plants. But here's the point. When you do get all of this sorted out, then it's time to start the hard part. The politics.
Any neighbor who doesn't like your idea for a garden can contact the plan commission or the city council and put the knife in your back. You need to try to get in to see as many plan commission members as you can but especially the one in your own district, who will have final say-so over this, and probably also the council member in your district.
If the council or plan commission member says, "I might like your idea, or I might not, but meanwhile I would like to recommend some really good community garden subcontractors," then you need to try to look all around the office under flower pots and behind paintings and stuff to see if you can find any FBI listening devices. What a shame, you only wanted to do a community garden, you should wind up doing three to five in the Big House instead. Just saying. You watch the news. Be careful what you agree to.
Somewhere in here I suppose I have to deal with what some might consider hypocrisy. Recently in writing about problems in the Lower Greenville Avenue entertainment district, I expressed qualified enthusiasm for a plan to require special use permits for bars as a way of curbing noxious activities.
I did speak with some non-noxious landlords on Lower Greenville who told me they really hated the idea of being required to get special use permits. I feel their pain. What if somebody told me I needed a special use permit to keep my family in my house?
But then that's also the point, isn't it? Special use permits are appropriate for activities that involve large numbers of people puking and urinating on other people's lawns. It's a nuclear option.
I live in an urban area, and I have seen a whole lot of bad behavior there in my time. But I have never seen mobs of gardeners stumbling across lawns, urinating on the shrubbery and throwing up. If I ever did, I think I would fear it was a sign of the end times.
Look, the special use permit is a back-breaking process, and that is not an accident.
Did I mention that, should you actually get a special use permit, it's only good for two years? Oh, yeah. Then you have to do it all over again from scratch. Sorry. I don't have time after all to tell you about the hearings before the plan commission and then the city council. They're bad.
So you tell me. Is this the sort of idea you would expect to hear from somebody who is enthusiastic about community gardens?
Me, personally? I'm thinking about aerobic leapfrog.