The Hippies vs. Code Enforcement
Shellie, left center, first welcomed her lover, Quinn, into her Arlington home. His lover, Inok, followed with their two daughters in tow.
Twenty miles southwest of Jerry Jones' football gallery and the Rangers Ballpark is a rare swath of Arlington that hasn't yet been bulldozed over with stadiums, matching suburban houses or strip malls. It's a narrow, two-lane street called Mansfield Cardinal Road, and it goes pitch black at night, with no streetlights to guide cars away from the dirt and grass that line its sidewalk-less borders.
Each house is separated by a few acres, and none of them look the same. A place at the corner has a homemade sign advertising concrete. A scarecrow guards another. A fancier home is set back by a patch of perfectly manicured grass and protected by a tall gate. Down the way is a pale brown mobile home.
Some of the areas appear to be abandoned, fenced-off spaces with nothing but grass and weeds. Farther down is a house with horses in the backyard. The horses don't know it, but they have a great view of what is probably the most scandalous garden in the whole city.
"No trespassing" reads a sign taped to the front gate of the garden. "Only love enters here" reads another. The home on the property looks conventional enough, a gray two-story house that could be dropped in any middle-class neighborhood. A plug-in Prius charges in the parking lot by the garage. But a mysterious square covered by a tarp greets people who drive into the parking lot. It's actually a chalkboard, and when it's not covered it announces the name of the property: the Garden of Eden.
Behind the house is a 3.5-acre maze of nature and man-made artifacts. The grass is thick and uneven. One patch — a few feet wide, near the front gate — appears to be growing out of control. Bushels of flowers grow randomly in some parts of the lush field. The garden itself is squared off by another fence. It holds endless rows of leafy, tall plants. A giant black Buddha statue sits on a raised platform above the garden, praying.
Closer to the house are more signs of human life. Wooden, round steps lead visitors on a dirt path through a deck, decorated with an assortment of dining-room furniture, pottery and wind chimes. Three matching wicker chairs are perched across the way. An official Starbucks canopy hangs above another table, protecting it from the rain. And at the back of the property, on the edge of the field, sits a wooden shed filled with buckets, pans and other farming equipment. It's next to a pile of logs and an aging red couch. There's also a hammock, a horse swing and two trampolines.
It used to be a traditional house with no name, carefully mowed grass and a tamer garden. Shellie Smith, a tan woman of 53 years, with a muscular, wiry frame, moved here with her ex-husband, a pilot, 17 years ago, and they raised two children here. They went on double dates with an elderly couple who owned property nearby and drank wine at each other's houses afterward.
Shellie is still here, but that's about the only thing that's the same. Her children are grown and gone. Her ex-husband moved out about six years ago, and in his place moved Quinn Eaker, an opinionated, 30-year-old environment guru who wears his hair in a bun on top of his head. A few years later, another woman moved in, a 32-year-old former art gallery owner from Sedona named Inok Alrutz. Her daughter, Qiqi, is a cheerful 2-year-old who runs around naked, goes to bed at midnight and wakes up at noon.
The house, once the modest hub of a traditional American family, is now home to a year-round garden designed in a style of landscaping called permaculture. The philosophy, popular with foodies and hippie-types, is supposed to embrace a sustainable way to farm. It's a backlash of sorts to monoculture, the single-crop growing system used on industrial farms. "You go to a farmers market or Whole Foods and you buy the organic stuff — it's all crap compared to what this is," Quinn says.
Besides its permanent residents, the Garden of Eden also accepts visitors from around the world, so long as they're equally passionate about an eco-friendly lifestyle.
Two twentysomethings are crashing here now, after reading about the Garden of Eden online. Another visitor, a 28-year-old gardener who introduces himself as "Wolf," found the house through a Craigslist ad. They needed a gardener to help out. Wolf lives in his van, which is now parked on the property. "I'm a dirty hippie," he says, seemingly joking.
The Garden of Eden's bathrooms are two wooden outhouses hiding two compost toilets, one for urinating and one for everything else. (No toilet paper: That's what the sawdust is for.) An assortment of items recycled from trash bins and warehouses keeps the ecosystem thriving.
To create raised beds of soil, for example, the Garden of Eden makes use of oversized tractor tires. "We have tall grasses, we have flowers, we have bees and birds, we have an ecosystem that is symbiotic," Shellie says. Farther out in the back is a dysfunctional 1983 Chevy Suburban. It's halfway buried and covered in mud. When the project is finished, it will be an underground cave for guests to sleep in.
Inside, the kitchen always smells like basil. Baskets of okra, tomatoes and apples sit on the counter, and people are often snacking on tomatoes, honeydew, hummus and chips. The living room is clean but chaotic, with legal books piled on shelves and what looks a lot like a clothing store in the living room. Quinn insists that it's not an actual store, just a place that's happy to accept money for clothing if people would like to pay him for it. "We're not a business," he says.
"We have a lot of projects going on here," Shellie says, and that, for some people anyway, is the problem. "It wasn't until we decided we were going to cultivate this and turn it into sustainable property, and really share what we do with the outside world, it wasn't until then that really the issues started coming in."
It all began with a notice in the mail in January: "Please mow/cut overgrown grass on the entire property," wrote Curtis Jones, a code compliance officer for the city of Arlington.
Then another came: "Please remove all indoor furniture that is located outside in the rear of the property, and is being exposed to the weather."
Then another: "Please remove the pile of tires, wood, old pianos, wood pallets, junk, large plastic drums ... rubbish and debris located in the front and rear of the property."
Shellie heeded none of them. She was especially adamant about not mowing her grass in the front yard; tall grass is necessary to keep the crops cool year-round. That's how permaculture works.
"We're not going around to other people's houses and saying, 'Hey, that grass that you're growing there, all those chemicals you're putting on it, is destroying the world,'" Quinn says. "'All that petroleum you're using to mow that piece of shit is destroying the world."
So they fought back. Shellie sent letters to the city, accusing it of violating her constitutional rights. But the city was not interested in debating the particulars of the Constitution. This was strictly about the nuisance ordinance in the city of Arlington. And the Garden of Eden was about to see what happens to people who do not abide by their nuisance violations.
That happened on August 2, at around 7:30 a.m. Quinn woke up early that day, so he was already up when he looked out the window and saw them — a swarm of SWAT officers, more than he could count, descending on their Eden, guns and handcuffs in tow.
Year-round produce from across the world, freshly cut and watered lawns, even toilet paper: The trappings of modern life, it turns out, aren't especially friendly to the environment. Across the United States, more people are realizing this and starting to try other approaches with their groceries, their homes and their yards.
Many are finding their local governments slow to understand their progressive ways. Homeowners' associations have sued residents for installing solar panels. Cities limit how tall grass can be. And even during a historic drought, cities cite residents for letting their lawns go dry — or, in the case of one East Dallas horticulturist, for upsetting his neighborhood's historic aesthetics by tearing up his lawn in favor of rocks and cacti.
Locally grown food, meanwhile, has brought on its own series of legal headaches.
"The regulatory system isn't favorable to that type of commerce. There are just a lot of barriers to entry to small farmers trying to sell their products directly to consumers," says Pete Kennedy, an attorney at the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund.
In 2011, a SWAT team raided the Rawesome food co-op in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles. The offense: The co-op was selling unpasteurized milk, which some people argue is healthier than regular milk. The officers dumped the milk out.
The Garden of Eden denies that it sells food; they say they give it away during workshops. And it's not a traditional suburban area, though the surrounding streets are slowly becoming more developed like the rest of Arlington. Regardless, in the city's view, the permaculture garden and the rest of its projects have lowered property values and harmed nearby residents.
Shellie, dressed in a purple sweater from a thrift store, with an eagle feather earring in just one ear, didn't used to think of herself as a hippie. She grew up in the mountains of Colorado, where a sustainable lifestyle was necessary for survival. "I didn't have running water, because it wasn't super accessible. We had wells," she says.
Back when she was still married, her tomatoes died in the summer because there wasn't tall grass to shade them. She mowed the lawn back then.
"My neighbors now spend many, many hours, many hours a week on their mower, just going back and forth. And the next week, it looks the same," Shellie says, sitting on one of the illegal chairs in her backyard. "And they do it again. And I always knew that I always wanted to let it grow, and my husband didn't want to let it grow. So it was a really great opportunity when I divorced to actually try something else."
After her divorce, she began to see the property's potential. She already knew Quinn's family through an event his parents had hosted called "Rethinking Education," a national conference for the unschooling movement, which is different from homeschooling because kids are trusted to embrace their inner genius and do what they feel like, so long as it doesn't harm other people.
Quinn continues to embrace that philosophy and do what he feels like. Now that means traveling the world, dressing in silk kimonos and keeping his beard tied in a thin wire below his chin. He makes a living speaking at events and holding private consultations with people.
"I do it on basically everything that's important about being alive," he says. "I've been speaking at conferences around the world since I was, like, 20."
Though she had known him for a long time, it wasn't until after the divorce, Shellie says, that she and Quinn fell in love. "I have never felt a love so profound as with Quinn," Shellie wrote in a publication called Rethinking Everything Magazine. She felt that she and Quinn could do something big together, something special involving all the land. At the same time, she was sensitive to the fact that they made an awkward couple for the neighbors to see, and to her children, who aren't much younger than Quinn.
"When Quinn first came, it was kind of rough for them because their dad was just leaving, and my son was getting to the age where he was getting to be the man of the house," she says. Adding to the awkwardness: A few years after moving in, Quinn traveled to Sedona and ended up at a party. That's where he met Inok, now the house's third permanent residence and the mother of Quinn's two daughters. "Quinn and I fell in love like the instant we saw each other," Inok says. "It was really, really powerful. And a few months later, I discovered that we had created a little being."
Inok ran a gallery in Sedona at the time, a community space for local artists who couldn't get into more posh places. When she discovered she was pregnant, Quinn told her not to worry. "He told me that if it was my desire to fully embrace motherhood, that he would be willing to support that. I was like OK, great, I accept."
Shellie was understandably jealous. But she put that aside and invited Inok to live there too. She laughs now, imagining her neighbors when they saw a pregnant Inok move in. "For the first time in my life, I didn't give a fuck," Shellie says.
Inok and Quinn now have a second baby, a 3-month-old named Quinnoki. When Inok's not taking care of the kids, she spends her time helping the house market events. She sleeps in a room upstairs with the babies. Shellie sleeps on the other side of the house. Quinn sleeps wherever he lands.
"We decided that it would just be better if I lived my life and he lived his life, and, you know whenever we wanted to be together, we'd be together," Inok says. "That's kind of always what I've desired in a relationship, because I've never really been particularly interested in like rules and regulations, and stuff like that."
Shellie still liked her neighbors, even though they weren't doing anything radical with their land. Articulate and soft-spoken, she also knew it wouldn't be smart to isolate them. After her home began changing, she went door-to-door, she says, asking them to confront her directly if she did anything that bothered them.
"We never argued and we didn't ever fight with each other," Shellie says of her neighbors, "and we didn't ever like go behind each other's back or have any problems."
In 2011, she says, she even invited over some code officers, including Curtis Jones. She showed them her garden and her compost pile so they understood why her yard looked the way it did. She says Jones and his fellow officer Neal Lucas seemed impressed. (Jones and all other city employees referred questions to city of Arlington's office of communication, which disputes this account. "Neal and Curtis met with Smith in 2011 after receiving several complaints about the property from neighbors, communications editor Sana Syed said in a written response to questions. "At that time, the amount of code violations was not as severe as it was at the time of the abatement.")
When Jones sent Shellie a notice two years later, demanding she cut her grass, she was surprised. None of her neighbors had complained directly to her, she says. The only demand from the city of Arlington that Shellie agreed to abide by was a violation stating that her trees were hanging too far into the road. "We're honorable people and we have no desire whatsoever to infringe on anyone's freewill right to travel," Quinn says.
For the other citations, Shellie responded with her own notices back to the city, citing constitutional law that Quinn had researched and now references as he recounts the months leading up to the raid. "We have the right to be secure in our persons and our effects," Quinn says. "We have the right to the pursuit of our happiness. We have the right to our spiritual paths. Those are laws. Those are unarguable, undebatable laws. Case law has proven that for hundreds of years."
Arlington officials were unimpressed. Officials gave Shellie seven days, until February 4, to fix her violations. Shellie responded by giving the city of Arlington 30 days to respond to her own charges that they were illegally infringing on her rights.
"They didn't respond," Quinn says, "because they couldn't, because there is no law that supersedes that law."
In February, the Garden of Eden started getting new notices from Arlington, threatening forms called "Notice of Abatements," warning that the city of Arlington would soon take matters into its own hands: "SUBSEQUENT VIOLATIONS ON THIS PROPERTY MAY RESULT IN THE CITY, WITHOUT FURTHER NOTICE, ABATING THE VIOLATION AT THE OWNER'S EXPENSE."
The Garden of Eden responded with more letters — or "lawful notifications," as Quinn calls them, to people higher up, the mayor and city manager.
At the end of February, Shellie was summoned to court, for something called a code pretrial hearing. She thought she'd be able to explain how the garden worked, how permaculture works. Instead, she found herself in a small courtroom with dozens of other people. They waited in line for anonymous city employees behind a desk to give them two options: Pay the city fines resulting from the citations or request a jury trial.
Shellie faced hundreds of dollars in fines for "unclean premises" ($132), "failure to keep property clear of weeds etc." ($387), "nuisance outside storage" ($316), "faulty weather protection" ($566) and even "trees overhanging sidewalks" ($177), though she claims she'd already cut the trees by then.
Yet the abatements continued. When she found out she was being charged with a misdemeanor for "unclean premises," she requested a hearing. There would be no jury. It was scheduled for May 2013. Fearing she'd be railroaded, she didn't go.
It was around then that Shellie and Quinn noticed something strange: People they didn't recognize, who didn't seem excited to be there, started showing up at their workshops. They stopped holding them, worried they might be undercover city employees. They were right. An affidavit would later reveal that undercover police officers had visited the Garden of Eden.
They also started keeping their front gate locked all the time, posting a lengthy sign directed at employees of the city of Arlington: "You have been and are again hereby given lawful notice of your participation in and perpetuation of the slavery system."
It wasn't long after that when the SWAT team showed up.
Inok's daughter was just 2 weeks old. She was in bed with her that morning, after a long, sleepless night. Quinn ran in her room. "He's like, 'SWAT's here,'" Inok recalls. "I'm like, 'What?'" He gave her a statistic about being eight times more likely to die in a SWAT raid than a terrorist attack and told her to stay calm.
Quinn walked downstairs with his hands up, repeating to officers that women and children were upstairs. They put Quinn in handcuffs and hauled him off to jail.
Inok quickly got dressed. Officers entered her room, put her in handcuffs and brought her downstairs, leaving the children behind. She was kept away from them for 20 minutes, she says, until a SWAT officer called out: "Children are stirring. Do you want the mother to have access?"
Inok was brought upstairs, back to the bedroom, and stayed there for several hours with a group of SWAT officers who carefully avoided eye contact. "I felt like all of them felt like it was really intrusive," she says. She fell asleep with the babies while her room was on guard. After several hours, she was allowed to go downstairs and move around the house freely. Everyone could, besides Quinn, who had been arrested. But no one could leave the property. Not until the search was over. The entire ordeal lasted 10 hours.
Code enforcement officers arrived on a separate bus to "abate" the violations. They mowed down the grass and plants, Shellie says, but gave up when they realized how long that would take on a 3.5-acre property. Inside, five or six code enforcement officers wandered the house with clipboards. They inspected the bedroom and Inok's compost toilet on the upstairs balcony. A separate truck hauled away some of Shellie's spare tires and other projects. There were so many city employees there that they set up a tent to shade themselves with throughout the day.
Strangely, they left behind the couch that wasn't weather resistant. "I actually wanted them to take that away," Inok says.
After the raid, another neighbor surveyed the damage. She saw 40 police cars drive down the road that morning, in a procession that lasted 15 minutes. Before that, she didn't know much about the Garden of Eden, other than it was a place where a friend once got some vegetables. "They tore that place up," the neighbor says.
They bailed Quinn out of jail that night, and soon after sent out a press release describing the raid to media. Two weeks later, it caught on, and the Garden of Eden was famous.
The police, it turned out, had gone looking for weed. The officer who wrote the search warrant, identified as Officer M. Perez of the Arlington Police Department, had seen an advertisement on the Garden's website advertising "Uber Dank" food, and knew "through her training and experience that 'Uber Dank' is also slang for high quality marijuana." An anonymous tipster had also told police that Quinn was hiding marijuana behind the bamboo plants, she said. In response, the Texas Department of Public Safety had sent a manned aircraft, the warrant explained, and spotted what they thought were marijuana plants.
The aircraft, the tip, the officer's mastery of marijuana parlance: It was all wrong. They didn't find a single bud.
Headlines from publications across the country, from the New York Daily News to the Huffington Post, ridiculed small-town Texas cops for not being able to distinguish between organic veggies and pot. Left-wing websites rallied against the Arlington Police Department. Ron Paul took up the cause and even interviewed Quinn.
Shellie filed a formal complaint against the Arlington Police Department, saying that officers waited two hours before presenting a warrant after they barged into the house. Through a spokesman, the Arlington Police Department would not comment on Shellie's specific allegations, explaining that "the status of the complaint regarding these allegations is pending." In a statement afterward, city of Arlington spokeswoman Syed downplayed the police raid, saying that "narcotics detectives and members of the tactical unit cleared the scene within 45 minutes." In an email to the Observer, Syed adds: "Nuisance conditions often require a more immediate response to ensure the safety and welfare of the community."
Syed's statement did take the opportunity to point out the alleged code violations the city found when they arrived that same day. She cites complaints from neighbors.
"As detailed in the search warrant affidavit, since 2011 Code Compliance Services has received numerous complaints from residents who live in the area and are concerned about their health and safety due to the current unsanitary conditions on the property that promotes the harboring of rodents, mosquitoes and fire hazards."
On a recent weekday, Shellie walks back into her garden, which is starting to look more like itself. She cuts off leaves of fresh basil. Qiqi runs into the kitchen, naked but with boots on her feet, holding an empty bowl.
Quinn is here, too: He hasn't been charged with anything. A brief incident report says only that "during the execution of a search warrant, arrestee was found to have outstanding misdemeanor warrants." He can't get them to provide the full police report, and the city of Arlington told the Observer that "the case is still pending and will not be released to the public at this time."
Shellie's jury trial is still set to take place in March. But during the raid, she was cited again with the same violations. She has another pretrial hearing next month, and Arlington has thrown in a few other violations: "BUSINESS OUT OF HOME (NO PERMIT)" ($682) and "HAZARDOUS WIRING" ($566).
But now they're not even sure about those. After the raid, Shellie and Quinn went to the courthouse to gather information about all the charges. The clerk told Shellie she was facing nine citations, including three for "wrong color signal device."
"Wrong color signal device?" Shellie asked, according to a recording she provided of the meeting.
"I have no idea," the clerk replied. The clerk left and came back. Those citations were mistakenly keyed into the system, from a scanning error, she said. Several other citations were also mistakes. The clerk apologized profusely.
"I've never had this happen before," the clerk said. "Someone put it in the system when they're not supposed to." But those citations may reappear at any time.
"That means you have to continue to check on them to make sure that after they get reviewed, they don't get put in the system," the clerk explained. The city has two years to file a case for the "wrong color signal device." Quinn and Shellie are thinking about filing a lawsuit but can't afford an expensive lawyer. They're saving their records just in case.
Quinn is convinced that they were targeted specifically because of the "lawful notifications" they sent back to city officials. As proof, he points to his warning sign on the front gate, accusing the city of Arlington of perpetuating slavery. It was torn down the day of the raid, he says. "I think they were scared of us."
Shellie doesn't go quite that far, though she does think her neighbors are scared of her lifestyle. "People are always afraid of what they don't understand," she says. "We have a lot of elderly people here. They've been out here for a very long time."
She says she found only one resident who officially complained — the elderly couple that she used to go on double-dates with, back when she was married. They have a view of the garden. The couple didn't respond to voicemail messages requesting an interview, but according to Shellie, the wife told her she had no idea that the city would be sending armed police officers to the Garden of Eden.
"She said, 'I really love you, I just don't like what you do,'" Shellie remembers. "And I said, 'Well I love you, but I don't really like that you called [the city].'"
During her door-to-door research, Shellie made another discovery: The city of Arlington had hosted a meeting with neighbors to discuss problem properties back in February, including the Garden of Eden. But the Garden of Eden wasn't invited.
"Our representative from this area called us and told us that there was going to be a meeting taking place, and the time and date, and that was why we showed up," says Bonnie McClure, a neighbor who was invited to the meeting with her husband, Gil. She was given no advance notice what the meeting would be about, she says.
The couple didn't complain about Shellie's property, but McClure says they would have if they lived closer to it. "Why do you allow people to run sewage into buckets with sawdust?" Bonnie asks. "Since when is that allowed to occur on the city limits?" She's also not a fan of Quinn's hairstyle. "If you see him, he looks like he's trying to be Jesus."
Bonnie probably needn't worry about the weird-haired hippies multiplying, as the neighborhood looks to be losing its rural, unkempt aesthetic. From the back of the Garden of Eden is a view of a golf course operated by the city of Arlington. That didn't used to be there. And just a few minutes away is now a gated community with upscale houses. An apartment community is down the street from that, with streetlights and everything. It used to be easier to see the stars in the sky at night, Shellie says.
And even on Mansfield Cardinal Road, which still looks more country than suburban, one of the junk yards has been flagged by the city of Arlington. It's a violation addressed vaguely to the owner of 7308 Mansfield Cardinal, for grass and weeds that are too tall: "You are required to correct the violations within 7 days of notice," it reads. According to the date, it was issued back in June.
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