I am more appropriate than previously thought

I’m taking out another contract on my garden today. It seems our trellis is in the right-of-way and the Ada County Highway District wants to make sure I won’t whine, should they ever exercise their rights.

A few months ago, Boise Weekly readers might recall, I was served with a fence violation for erecting a trellis in my front yard. The fence violation spiraled into a full-fledged historic preservation violation because of the materials used in its construction and because of the major landscaping change which the trellis surrounds: a nearly 2,000 square foot front-yard garden.

The garden is thriving. We have been eating salad every day, carrots are maturing, radishes are almost all eaten up, some peas are crawling up the trellis, though looking a bit yellowed already. Everyday I walk barefoot in the garden and eat turnips right out of the ground, graze on the lettuces. Every day multiple people walk or bike by and stop to chat about the garden. At nearly midnight last night a group of cyclists rode by and shouted, “Nice garden, dude,” as I read on the porch.

So it is with great pleasure that I report to you that the City of Boise has deemed the garden and trellis “appropriate.” That is the term they use. I have a Certificate of Appropriateness pending for my little urban farm.
It’s pending because I need to get my license agreement with ACHD done first. And because they’ve asked us to put some permanent greenery along the street-facing edge of the yard. So I need to find a low-water, low-profile creeping plant that will grow down a nearly vertical slope to the street but not take over the garden, if anyone has any recommendations … something that is not grass.

But the other interesting thing that came out of this process is that the city’s Historic Preservation Department plans to convene a working group at the end of the summer to discuss gardens in Historic Districts. Sarah Shafer, the lead staffer at Historic Preservation told me that the commissioners prefer raised beds but said that the were looking for some more recommendation on how to handle gardens in historic districts.

I argued in my letter to the city that gardens are inherently historical. And if I end up participating in the garden working group, I will argue that raised beds are inherently limiting and a touch elitist. Well, I won’t argue, but I will try to make that point as graciously and eloquently as possible.

I can’t be sure, but I think our giant front-yard garden has inspired some others in the neighborhood to plant it up. There is a yard a few blocks down that has a ton of corn and beets coming in and I noticed some new raised beds in an alley around the corner. Wouldn’t it be amazing if people started finding tomato plant volunteers in their lawns instead of dandelions?

I’d like to share the letter I wrote to the city requesting the Cetificate of Appropriateness … you can read it after the jump. Hell, it’s public record, so anyone can see it anyway. In the letter, I stressed that the city is encouraging urban gardening and other environmentally responsible practices on the one hand but limiting people’s imaginations through zoning on the other. I think they realize that and are looking for a solution.

In the meantime, I’m hoping that whatever neighbor complained about my plot will come forward and talk to me about it. I have no hard feelings, even though the process of being forced to defend my land-use choices has been pretty annoying. I would say now that I still believe the city has a right to regulate things like fences and landscaping to some degree, but that it would have been better for any aggrieved neighbor to have a discussion with me first, and then turn me in if I was an asshole about it. That’s a more local solution.

Here is the letter we sent in to City Hall:

Dear Historic Preservation Staff:

Last fall we took an underutilized and overly sunny section of our side yard and converted it to a garden space. We were inspired to do this after taking a 9-month long organic farming course with Peaceful Belly Farm, one of the city’s most successful urban farms. We were also inspired by the movement toward local and sustainable agriculture that is sweeping the nation and even inching its way into the City of Boise’s own planning documents:

“As the city continues to grow, opportunities for small?scale urban agriculture will be preserved and residential food production encouraged. Providing opportunities for community gardens, small?scale farms, and other food production within the AOCI will help reduce the community’s reliance on outside food sources, support the local economy, promote community interaction, increase access to fresh produce, promote community health, and help Boise City maintain an identity that is distinct from other communities.” —Blueprint Boise Draft

The garden takes up almost 2,000 sq. ft. and is right now teeming with life: large, bushy potato plants are beginning to flower, successions of lettuce mix in vibrant reds and greens populate the row closest to the house, providing daily salads for us and for the two other families that are working in the garden with us. Radishes and turnips are practically popping our of the ground. And 70 feet of peas are reaching out to the trellis that we established.

It is that trellis that has apparently landed us in the position in which we find ourselves today: begging your mark of appropriateness on a project born of love, necessity and stewardship. The original fence violation notice of April 30, based on a complaint, was issued without any conversation with us, the owners. We maintain that the attractive structure that we built of ranch panel and pine post, is not a fence, but rather a trellis. As you can see from the attached photos, the trellis does not affect ingress/egress to the property, does not obscure any views and at three feet high, is easily vaulted by even a small child. Additionally, we have planted cucumbers along the east-west trellis and peas and beans along the north-south trellis, which your inspector may not have known.

I believe the zoning enforcement officer visited prior to the trellis even being complete–at one point the posts were quite tall, but we planned all along to cut them down to proportional size. A short conversation with us would have explained that.

But when I came down to PDS to discuss the matter and get the requisite fence permit, I was informed that rather than a mere permit, I needed a certificate of appropriateness for both the trellis and garden. I am filing the application, but I feel that it is an extraordinary request in this situation and that a brief conversation at the outset could have resolved any issues.

I have reviewed the Design Guidelines for Residential Historic Districts and other documents available on your Web site and find scant direction for a project such as ours. Under the policies for the North End, I note the fencing guidelines discourage certain materials and the construction of fences where none existed. As I stated above, our trellis maintains open access to the property for neighbors (we’ve encouraged our neighbors to enjoy the garden and many do), and while made from unique materials it was well-designed and is quite attractive, as you can see from the attached photos.

As far as the landscaping guidelines, we have converted a useless, water-sucking monoculture of grass into a highly productive garden, growing food crops, fruit trees and flowers. But beyond that, if the preservationist impulse is to preserve the character and livibility of the neighborhood, we have a huge advantage on our side. Our garden has brought neighbors together, and while one person apparently complained about the “fence,” I challenge you to find a single person who dislikes what we’ve built–every single jogger, biker and dog walker that passes by will linger, ask questions about our row cover or drip irrigation and perhaps take a sample radish or turnip to go. It is a huge asset to the neighborhood and, as noted above, creates new opportunities for urban agriculture, as recommended in other city documents.

A note on the house, a classic Boise ranch style house: part of the ranch ethic was a return to indoor/outdoor living and we have greatly enhanced the utility of our front yard, turning it into a meeting place where one can walk out the front door and be immediately transported to another realm, an earlier age where people knew how to grow their own food.

Finally, this garden is not just ours. We teamed up with two other families who completed the gardening course last year and most weekends you will find us all out there, including our kids (ages 2-10), weeding, harvesting, fixing pipe. And we have kept most of our neighbors in the loop as well, asking their advice and seeking their blessing.

As you consider the appropriateness of this venture, I urge you to consider the context I’ve provided in this letter. I look forward to answering all of your questions and even providing a tour of the property if you’d like.

Thank you for your time and for the work you do keeping Boise such a great place to live.


Nathaniel Hoffman

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