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VOL. 35 | NO. 32 | Friday, August 12, 2011

Oversight sought for 80+ community gardens

By Colleen Creamer

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The dismantling of George W. Carver Food Park and community garden in April pitted neighbor against neighbor and – in the eyes of many -- cast the Tennessee Department of Transportation in the role of villain.

Now, two Metro Council members are hoping to avoid similar problems in the future.

A bill proposed by Metro Council members Lonnell Matthews, Jr. and Sandra Moore would establish a community garden commission similar to Metro’s Greenways Commission to oversee Davidson County’s 80-plus community gardens.

The commission would oversee the various groups involved in community gardening, promote the practice in Nashville, identify suitable areas and educate the community on its benefits.

“One thing that happened with the Carver Garden is, because it was on state-owned property, they were given a mandate (by TDOT) to find a Metro agency to oversee that property or they were going to sell it at a surplus property,” Matthews says.

“We need some governance so everyone can be on the same page about who to come to and where to get information,” Matthews adds. “A commission is a step in the right direction.

Matthews says the bill has for been deferred but will proceed when Metro finds a “coordinator of urban agriculture” for the Open Space Plan, a public/private effort between Metro and The Land Trust for Tennessee.

As with the greenway commission and the beautification commission, the community garden commission would not be considered an official board or commission of the Metropolitan Government.

Metro Council amended its zoning code in 2009 to allow community gardens as a permitted land use in nearly all of the zoning districts.

The story of the Carver Food Park, a garden that had operated for two decades by EarthMatters, has at least two sides—and a perfect storm.

TDOT had a long-standing, informal agreement with EarthMatters, allowing use of its right-of-way for the park. EarthMatters director Sizwe Herring says he met with TDOT in April, discussed what was to be done by a May deadline, agreed to most of it, and the next day was met with TDOT dismantling everything other than the garden beds.

“It was extreme. We went to Mr. Gaffron’s office [TDOT’s regional director, Winston Gaffron] by their 4:30 deadline with a letter saying we would accommodate him by having all the buildings removed,” Herring says. “Bill Penn [Director of Codes & Building Safety] said we could have an outbuilding tool shed. The city didn’t know what the state was doing and the state didn’t know what the city was doing.”

TDOT’s public information officer B.J. Doughty maintains EarthMatters was given ample time and didn’t comply. Complaints had been sporadic for a number of years, Doughty says, and then came in a “flurry” in January, which did not sit well with newly installed Commissioner John Schroer.

“We tried multiple attempts to work with Mr. Herring, and basically what it came down to is that we asked Mr. Herring to bring up the site to standards and provided him with the date,” Doughty says. “There was also an issue with them using a PA system and music that was disturbing the residents. That was one of their chief complaints, and he would not agree to either of those things.”

Herring that he had already been complying with Metro’s decibel limits for music.

“We knew it was in violation of our right to gather. We’d been doing in for 20 years,” Herring says. “When you have more than few people you have to have a microphone. It wasn’t blasting the community.”

For now, EarthMatters is getting back some of it materials taken by TDOT and scouting for a new garden site.

The establish of a community garden commission would likely help Leslie Speller-Henderson, director of the C.R. McGruder Community Garden behind the McGruder Family Resource Center in North Nashville.

Speller-Henderson says she is hopeful the McGruder Community Garden will find its stride.

While residents rarely come and plant, the harvest manages to make it to local tables. Speller-Henderson thinks an education and outreach campaign might help the community better understand the health model, that planting and tending act as exercise, and that locally grown fruits and vegetables are better than processed foods.

“The community doesn’t really buy in right now to coming out, working it and weeding it to see the harvest. It’s a different kind of community garden,” Speller-Henderson says. “They’ll watch it grow, and then they’ll just come and get it. I think with some added education, the community just might be inclined to buying into the volunteer-aspect of this.”

As with the greenway commission and the beautification commission, the community garden commission would not be considered an official board or commission of the Metropolitan Government.

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