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Conflicting Versions Mark Case of the Errant Victory Gardens

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday June 25, 2009 - 07:04:00 PM
City officials say the planters built by Asa Dodsworth along the parking strip in front of his house violate city code, threatening hefty fines unless they’re removed or he applies for an encroachment permit.
Richard Brenneman
City officials say the planters built by Asa Dodsworth along the parking strip in front of his house violate city code, threatening hefty fines unless they’re removed or he applies for an encroachment permit.
Asa Dodsworth.
Richard Brenneman
Asa Dodsworth.

Asa Dodsworth faces an ever-mounting pile of potential fines from the City of Berkeley. His crime? He says it’s front-yard gardening. 

But Gregory Daniel, the city’s chief code enforcement officer, said the problem is simpler: Building structures on public property without a permit. 

City code poses problems for front-lawn gardeners who want to build planter boxes and retaining walls on their front lawns so they can either stop and smell the roses or grab some home-grown victuals for lunch. 

While many Berkeley residents might not know it, the city controls a considerable portion of the property between the curb and the front door—including outright ownership of the parking strip between street and sidewalk plus an easement that takes up a total of 17 feet between curb and home along the block of Acton Street where Dodsworth owns his home, Daniel said. 

That puts Dodsworth in a tough spot since his narrow Acton Street front yard is the only place he can garden, given that the backyard consists of a small patio and the steep banks of Strawberry Creek. 

Dodsworth’s plantings extend from his front porch to the nearest edge of the sidewalk, then from the far side of the sidewalk to the curb, almost all of it within the city’s statutory control. 

Dodsworth said he’d been warned that he could be fined up to $500 a day for each of a series of violations ranging from cultivation of plants taller than six feet, planting a tree within 15 feet of the curb without a permit, planting in the city right-of-way between the curb and sidewalk, unpermitted construction of garden beds, construction of garden beds between street and curb, and another garden-bed violation—the total running to up to $3,000 a day. 

In his defense, he said that to ease access to and from cars parked along the curb, he’s made sure there are no obstructions within 18 inches of the curb face, and for pedestrians, he’s allowed none of his low-rise plants to overhang the sidewalk, and he’s pruned tree branches so that none is fewer than eight feet above the sidewalk. 

But Daniel said the only violation the city wants to enforce concerns the parking strip. 

While Dodsworth said he was threatened with prosecution for planting fruit trees in his front yard, Daniel insists that’s not the case. 

Daniel said he’s mostly concerned with the planting structures and the table and chairs Dodsworth has placed on the city-owned strip. 

City Parks Superintendent Sue Ferrara said front-yard fruit trees aren’t a problem, but the city requires a no-cost permit for any that are planted in “the parkway,” her department’s term for what Daniel calls the parking strip. 

The city will meet with the landowner to pick an appropriate tree, one that won’t cause the sidewalk to heave or attract rats, among other considerations. 

City Public Information Officer Mary Kay Clunies-Ross said, “It’s the planting boxes that are in the way.” 

Dodsworth is no stranger to controversy. A Food-Not-Bombs activist who serves food to the homeless at People’s Park, he also supported the Memorial Stadium tree-sit and ran for a City Council seat last November. 

And like any activist responding to an officialdom intent on destroying the object of his passion, he is fighting back and looking for supporters in his battle against city hall. 

It’s not like this is the first time Dodsworth has been busted for unlawful gardening. 

His previous battle with the city in 2005 ended with the city-forced demolition of an attractive, over the sidewalk flowering arbor, a feature much liked by some of his neighbors and passersby but one that ran afoul of city laws. 

This time the war between plants and people focuses on plantings between sidewalk and curb, technically city property, and in his front yard, where planting boxes contain a variety of edible and attractive plants—as well as a couple of potentially scofflaw fruit trees. 

According to Dodsworth, the problems began when city code enforcement officer Gregory Daniel spotted his garden as he was driving down Acton Street. It was also Daniel who had cited him for the arbor four years ago. 

Daniel said the only reason he acted was because of complaints from neighbors. Callers complained about large vehicles parking on the narrow stretch of street, including “two or three yellow buses” used by Food Not Bombs and an oversized pickup and large mobile home that was once parked nearby. 

Dodsworth said one bus had parked there, and he insisted the vehicle was legally registered. 

“Neither the truck or the trailer had current registration, and the guy who owned them took off when we got there,” Daniel said. 

Dodsworth isn’t the only yard gardener drawing fire for trying to raise food on the homefront. 

Gary Rosenberg, who lives nearby in the 1400 block of Bancroft Way, has amassed more than $6,000 in fines for building a greenhouse atop his home. 

“It was neighbors who called to complain there, too,” Daniel said. 

Rosenberg, who wrote City Councilmember Darryl Moore in January to say that he was working with an architect to make sure the addition is safe, described his homestead as “my urban farm.” 

But Daniel said neighbors were more concerned about malodorous compost which had been cooking in the sun along his parking strip. 

One of Dodsworth’s neat bits of psychological jujitsu has been to dub his front-yard vegetable and ornamental plantings a Victory Garden, conjuring up images of domestic campaigns during this country’s involvement in the two World Wars of the 20th century. 

During the World Wars, the United States adopted—temporarily—many of the same values espoused by the modern green movement, including extensive recycling and growing food locally. 

Local food growth allowed diversion of more foods to the American military and to the nation’s allies during the two eras of massive military conflict. Fuel conservation was also espoused, though rubber for tires rather than gasoline itself was rationed as a way to encourage use of mass transit. 

Victory Gardens became ubiquitous, featured during World War II on the covers of major magazines like the New Yorker and front pages of national and local newspapers. 

University extension departments taught home canning of vegetables and other forms of food preservation—all foreshadowing the calls of the green movement at the dawn of the next century. 

Dodsworth said he chose the name “because once upon a time we were all supposed to plant gardens for a greater purpose.” 

“This isn’t about a city campaign against Victory Gardens,” Daniel said. 

As a result of the city’s actions and Dodsworth’s counter-campaign, the soft-spoken activist has attracted the support other activists including Maxina Ventura of East Bay Pesticide Alert and Nik Bertulis, Merritt College Regenerative Design instructor. 

His plight has also resonated through the growing sector of the blogosphere that focuses on urban gardens and the so-called “slow food movement,” where stories about his “Acton Street Victory Garden” have struck a sympathetic chord with bloggers including the authors of Garden Rant, Vegan Reader, Slow Family Online and Streetsblog San Francisco. 

Daniel said one concern had been that animals had escaped from Dodsworth property. The young activist keeps chickens, largely rescue roosters and some hens, and occasionally the resulting chicks are able to squeeze their way to a fence. 

He gives many of the birds away to others who want to start their own broods. 

During a reporter’s Tuesday evening visit to the property, two neighborhood youngsters came by, eager to show the mother of one the colorful birds then contained behind a fence. All three visitors were delighted. 

Minutes later, a couple of the younger fowl managed the great escape, but confined their activity to looking for eats among the garden plants. 

So while Dodsworth follows many of the same rules embodied in the city’s emerging Climate Action Plan and devotes much of his time to feeding the homeless—another Berkeley civic virtue—he’s also a bureaucrat’s worst nightmare. 

“I’ve told him he could come down and apply for an encroachment permit to regularize his structures,” Daniel said. But like his neighbor on Bancroft Way, Dodsworth has yet to apply