NEWS

City threatens to level urban gardener's crop in Cedar Rapids

Late compromise will let him bring in okra and all the rest

A marigold grows in an old construction boot in the garden Edward Thornton built in an empty lot behind his apartment on Sixth Street SW in Cedar Rapids, seen on Thursday, July 31, 2014. Thornton built the garden with reused materials, and says the garden has created a community anchor point for the surrounding residents who also share the garden's produce. After a complaint to the city, Thornton was initially told he would have to clear the garden by August 6, but has since been given an extension until October 31. (Liz Martin/The Gazette-KCRG)
A marigold grows in an old construction boot in the garden Edward Thornton built in an empty lot behind his apartment on Sixth Street SW in Cedar Rapids, seen on Thursday, July 31, 2014. Thornton built the garden with reused materials, and says the garden has created a community anchor point for the surrounding residents who also share the garden's produce. After a complaint to the city, Thornton was initially told he would have to clear the garden by August 6, but has since been given an extension until October 31. (Liz Martin/The Gazette-KCRG)
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It’s been a bountiful run for the green thumb of Edward Thornton.

Four years ago, Thornton looked out the back window of his apartment in the 600 block of First Avenue SW and realized that he could grow something more than weeds on two, newly vacant, city-owned lots where two flood-damaged structures had been bought out and demolished.

No matter that it wasn’t his land.

He pulled the weeds, mowed and tilled, and quietly planted a small garden, which has grown into a thriving, 1,500-square-foot paradise of produce. He’s into his fourth year of growing, canning, freezing, pickling and giving away a long list of vegetables: winter squash, summer squash, green beans, peppers, okra, beets, carrots, radishes, tomatoes, potatoes, okra, snow peas, sunflowers, kohlrabi, lettuce and on and on.

It will be his last crop on the two city lots at 110 and 112 Sixth St. SW.

Success attracted attention, and another city resident, who was denied permission to garden on a city-owned lot, turned Thornton in.

The rationale — Why can he if I can’t? — led a terse-sounding letter to Thornton from the city of Cedar Rapids’ Building Services office, which told Thornton that he has been trespassing on city land and must remove his garden by this Wednesday or face city action.

In response, a Facebook-launched petition drive on Thornton’s behalf generated more than 850 comments by noon Monday, when Sandi Fowler, the city’s assistant city manager, and Ray Nees, the assistant director of the city’s Building Services Department, headed out to meet Thornton at his garden to discuss the impasse.

A compromise emerged. Thornton will be allowed to maintain his garden until Oct. 31 at the end of this growing season if he begins to relocate a metal fire pit and a stack of wood next to the garden off city property before then, Fowler said.

“If you’re doing something against a zoning ordinance, a city ordinance, we do try to be problem-solvers and figure out a way to reasonably work with the citizen to a solution that works for both us and them,” Fowler said.

She said the city is marketing both of the lots on which the garden sits to developers interested in building single-family homes or an apartment building on the site, which is just off busy First Avenue West not far from downtown.

The city does not typically contract for the use of city-owned land as it is actively marketing it for another use, Fowler said.

Thornton didn’t deny that he was using city property without permission and without cost. But he said his garden is a reasonable, thoughtful use of two lots among the many vacant city-owned lots on which homes and commercial structures once stood before the 2008 flood.

“I don’t think the city law necessarily is meant to discourage putting the land to good use,” Thornton said. “I know the city doesn’t want people to use city lots as dumping grounds for their garbage and old cars and things like that. But a garden should be encouraged. This should be encouraged all over the flood zone.”

Fowler said the city does provide some 300 garden spaces in three community garden areas in the city and grants urban agricultural permits for people to farm with permission from a property owner. The city also has entered into a development agreement with the non-profit organization, Matthew 25, to operate the Ellis Urban Village with an urban farm on city-owned land not able to be marketed for other uses.

The 44-year-old Thornton said he doesn’t have a car and so can’t drive out to the city’s community garden near Ellis Park to grow vegetables.

So the city lots on Sixth Street SW out his apartment building’s back door were perfect for him. He starts plants from seed inside in February and March and then can keep an eye on the garden to limit theft through the outdoor growing season. Neighbors have helped and some share in the garden’s bounty, he said.

“I find it to be very relaxing and soothing,” Thornton said. “Instead of running around and raising hell, gardening is just what I really love to do. If I can’t do it here, I’ll find some other place.”

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