Burlington homeowners Michael Rooney and Susan Dorn built greenhouse-style hoop houses in their front yard two years ago to extend the growing season. Instead of harvesting salad greens in May or June, the couple now picks knee-high Swiss chard, kale and red mustard in early March.
"We want to control our own food as much as we can," says Rooney, who lives on South Willard Street near Champlain College. "Sustainable living. We live in Vermont. Grow your own food. All that stuff —– we believe in all of it."
But last month, the couple got a notice from the Burlington Code Enforcement Office that their gardening structures were a code violation and would have to come down to avoid penalties. The code office received an anonymous complaint anonymous complaints — three of them — about the homemade hoop houses.
Rooney says he was told that, under city zoning regulations, hoop houses qualify as "stable structures" and that the couple's raised garden beds qualify as "retaining walls" — both of which require permits from city hall. So does a two-foot-high metal fence that lines the garden to keep out hungry rabbits.
"This is ridiculous," Rooney says on a recent spring day.
Rooney and Dorn are master gardeners, certified through classes at the University of Vermont Extension School and hours of apprenticing. Their front yard on South Willard Street, a well-heeled part of town with stately colonial homes, has been turned into an urban gardener's paradise — with bountiful gardens, peach, apple and pear trees, and strawberry beds alongside the steps that lead up a slope to their front door.
But to at least one neighbor, the hoop houses are an out-of-place eyesore. Rooney says he doesn't know who made the complaint. He called one neighbor to inquire about it, but says he never heard back.
Dorn is the founder and CEO of RingMaster Software and Rooney is a principal at Spring Above Marketing. The couple built the hoop houses in 2010 using wood, electrical conduit and plastic sheeting. They went on the front lawn, he says, because that's the only sunny part of his yard.
Rooney has taken his case to city councilors, the mayor's office and members of Burlington's Urban Agriculture Task Force, a panel established by the city council to address just these sorts of town-farm clashes. Next Wednesday, he's meeting with Code Enforcement Director Bill Ward to show him the structures and see if a compromise can be worked out to keep them.
Ward explains that, under zoning regs, anything that remains on a property for longer than 30 days is considered a structure. He said the letter Rooney and Dorn received was a warning, not a violation that would come with fines. Warning letters give property owners a period of time — ordinarly 10 days, but in this case longer — to either take down the structure, apply for a permit or appeal the code enforcement officer's decision.
"When we receive a complaint we're required to investigate," Ward says. "It's not at the top of our priority list to go around and check people's yards for [code violations.]"
Rooney and Dorn haven't decided whether they'll try to keep the structures by seeking permits — which cost $90 each and could require a public hearing before the Development Review Board. Rooney, for one, worries that if he loses, he could "set a precedent for everyone else in this town" that would come back to haunt other urban gardeners in Burlington.
"We grow food because it's part of our lifestyle," Rooney says. "I don't want to have people who really can't afford [a permit] stuck with" an adverse city decision on urban gardening structures. Rooney understands that some might find his roadside hoop houses out of place in the neighborhood, but says the front-yard garden could stand as a "nice image of Vermont — that you could actually grow all your food here."
"This is Vermont, for goodness sake," Rooney adds. "We're all about sustainable living."
Photo credit: Andy Bromage
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