Friday, August 13, 2010

Really Northbrook...? or On The Merits of Urban Gardening

OK, Northbrook. Take a seat and let's talk for a second. In the past few years you've made a few decisions that have surprised me-in a good way! Like that time you purchased wind power to offset the energy for your water treatment plant. That was pretty good! Or the prairie you've restored and I jog through when I visit my parents. That's great! The bike lanes on Techny- what a great start! But now, I'm kinda confused about this decision. A family puts a garden on their front lawn so they can enjoy fresh veggies in the summer. Sounds fine to me.

Oh wait, what? It's a zoning violation? Really? Are the veggies bothering the neighbors? No? Oh wait, it's an "accessory use?" Like a farm? A FARM? And they need to restore it to lawn by November first? To LAWN? For the water, pesticides, and mowing it takes to maintain lawn you could just as easily have a garden that produces something delicious, nutritious and free. You can't find that at grocery stores anymore, Northbrook. But instead, this family will return this gasp of productivity to the sterile impotency of suburban turf grass. It will become the habitat of next to nothing, serve little functional purpose, but at least it won't be an "accessory use."

Okay. Arguments over accessory uses have caused ripples throughout the historical landscape of land use for over a century. One of my favorite insights into the practice of urban zoning comes from a case that dealt with accessory uses. The judge from Goldman v. Crowther, a 1925 case in the Maryland Court of Appeals suggested that zoning laws, "at a stroke arrests that process of natural evolution and growth, and substitutes for it an artificial and arbitrary plan of segregation..." Indeed, the defendant in this case- I believe a recent immigrant to the US-had been running a sewing shop out of his basement and was forced to leave.

I can see the merit of these types of regulations if, for example, your "accessory use" results in a line of cars around the block, noxious fumes, loud noises, or toxic runoff. I couldn't protest if a regulation prevented my next door neighbor from smoldering steel in her backyard. I can also see why such a regulation might apply if the accessory use results in some kind of supplementary income, although I'm not sure I always agree with its application. But I simply cannot reconcile why a garden, which earns the homeowner zero extra income, nor results in any nuisance, would be regulated away. It's retrograde and draconian. It's time for Suburbia to advance.

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