Nathan Athans simply wants to grow the produce that his young family eats – with what had been the front yard of his Sugar Creek house as the source.
As it turns out, it's perfectly legal for him to do so, and that's always been the case. For a several days, though, the question of the Athans garden's legality caused quite a social media uproar, a large portion of it from outside the city and metro region.
An ordinance amendment passed March 28 by the Sugar Creek Board of Alderman prohibits food gardens within a front yard's first 30 feet from the street in areas zoned for single-family dwelling. For areas zoned residential estate, the required front yard setback is 50 feet.
At the Gill Street house that Athans and his wife Brittany have rented since last March, that distance is right up to the front porch. But as an existing garden, Athans' plot was grandfathered in, something Sugar Creek Mayor Matt Mallinson said he knew would always be the case.
Last year, Athans started a garden in the front yard – the back yard has enough trees around that only a few hours of sunlight shine down – and it flourished. He acknowledged receiving a citation for weeds when it grew a bit out of control, but he quickly spruced it up.
“I don't want it to be an eyesore,” Athans said on Monday. “I just want to grow my own food.”
But a day after the ordinance passed, he said, a Sugar Creek official informed him the garden – which naturally has next-to-nothing sprouting at this time – would have to cease. Apparently that worker was unaware of the grandfather footnote.
Thursday, city officials and Athans confirmed, he was informed the garden is legal. If he had chosen to tear up the yard and start a garden this month, it wouldn't have been legal.
Mallinson and City Administrator Ron Martinovich term it a legal non-conforming use.
“The city called me,” Athans said Thursday. “They hadn't given me any written document, though I asked for it in writing. The city knew that was going to be grandfathered in.”
Athans said most of his neighbors are OK with the garden. Mallinson and Martinovich said some of the concerns raised that led to the ordinance included right of way on public sidewalks and sightlines from driveways.
“There were complaints, I don't know what the source was,” Martinovich said, adding that the garden discussion has come up in open meetings and public hearings along with potential guidelines for outdoor chicken pens in residential areas. “The Planning Commission, they're examining of all types of Type 1 agriculture.”
“The public input was enough that the board thought the public wanted to limit front-yard gardens,” Mallinson said. “The zoning board did their job; they took into consideration a whole lot.”
“Whether I agree or disagree is irrelevant,” he said, referring to his lack of vote with the aldermen except to break a tie. “My job is to make sure it's done legally.”
While Athans said he and his wife felt singled out, citing the lack of other front-yard gardens in the city and the specified distance, city officials say that isn't the case.
“They were never profiled, never targeted,” Mallinson said. “From day one, we knew they weren't going to be affected. Now, if he or anybody else, has weeds over 12 inches, they'll get a citation.”
As a person who does some gardening of his own, Mallinson said he can appreciate Athans' garden, especially if it looks again like it did in widely circulated picture from last year.
“If his garden looks like that, then good for him,” he said. “That was a well-maintained garden.”
“Nobody wants to single anybody out,” he emphasized.
This year Athans partitioned the garden, with small native flowers slated for the border and he plan to plant fewer vegetables. With him working as a cook at multiple restaurants and with his wife's environmental science studies in college, the couple knows their organic food and the knowledge they want to pass along to their two children.
While glad he gets to keep his garden, Athans wishes there wasn't a restriction at all. He pointed to the “Victory Gardens” from World War II that led to plenty of urban-plotted produce.
“Yes, I won the small battle and get to keep my garden, but it affects everybody else but me,” he said.
“Gardens could play a key role in turning America around (from high obesity rates), or at least Missouri,” he said. “It's more important than being able to grow tomatoes. It's about being sustainable.