Planners OK gardens on vacant lots

Published 9:58 pm Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Suffolk Planning Commission on Tuesday gave the green light to gardens on vacant lots in certain zoning districts.

The move requires an ordinance change, because city code currently says a principal use, such as a house, must be established on a lot before accessory uses. Gardens were considered an accessory use, but the ordinance change would make them a principal use in residential zoning districts, as well as certain other districts, such as agricultural districts and the central business district.

The issue was brought up by Daniel Strum, a resident of North Suffolk’s Cedar Point neighborhood, who was gardening on a vacant lot in the neighborhood. Someone complained, and Strum was issued a zoning violation notice. He eventually tilled under the garden.

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Strum was one of three people who spoke in favor of the ordinance change at Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting.

However, Cameron Robinett, president of Cedar Point Country Club, voiced his displeasure. He said he is concerned about what would happen if other vacant lots in Cedar Point become gardens as well.

“My concern is raised as it relates to how it affects us as a business at Cedar Point Country Club,” he said.

But Strum said he doubts that will be a problem. Plenty of people admired his garden when he had it, but nobody took him up on his offer to help, he said.

Others pointed out that people are in need of places to garden all over the city.

“This is not just one particular neighborhood,” Jean Carmean said during the public hearing. “There are other areas to be considered.”

Kay Cherry, who works with the community and school gardens at Suffolk Partnership for a Healthy Community, also said she supports the code change.

The code change would regulate the gardens. They could be no more than two acres in size, and the produce grown in them must be for personal consumption only. The code would regulate signage, fencing and other things.

The commission did make one change to the requirements. The recommendation from city staff was that heavy equipment would be allowed only one time, when the garden is first being established.

However, Strum noted that for larger gardens, that would not be feasible.

“That would become a real challenge with just hand tools,” he said.

Commissioner Arthur Singleton made a motion to change the requirements to allow heavy equipment twice a year, when establishing the garden in the spring and breaking it down after the growing season.

“I just think that’s a good idea,” Strum said.

Responding to concerns from Robinett and others, commissioner Jim Vacalis noted that the ordinance does not supersede any deed restrictions a lot may have.

City Attorney Helivi Holland, also responding to questions, said the owner of a lot has the only right to determine who may garden there.

The City Council will consider the ordinance change on April 20.