A guy, a garden and an anti-veggie zoning code


Field Notes
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Steve Miller doesn’t look like a troublemaker. He is shy and low-key, with a disarming tendency to assume the best intentions of those around him. He wears a straw hat, for heaven’s sake.

But to hear the sad saga of his encounters with DeKalb County over the past year, you’d think he were Zoning Enemy Number One.

He’s endured repeated inspections and citations, court appearances, zoning meetings, attorney fees, fines totaling into the thousands of dollars and the forced cessation of his favorite pastime. And here’s the kicker: In a community that claims, right there on its website, to be “The Greenest County in America,” all Miller was trying to do was grow some vegetables.

His troubles began last September, when a visit from a county code enforcement officer prompted him to tidy up a bit around his Clarkston home and the property he owns across the street. Apparently, the official noticed that instead of grass, Miller’s yard was filled with other leafy green things.

That was a problem, according to the county. A landscaper and lifelong gardener, Miller had, for several years, been growing vegetables on his property, which he sold at a couple of local farmers markets. He was informed that the R-85 zoning of his property allowed for livestock, pigeons and riding stables but did not specifically permit “crop production.” Pigs, yes; broccoli, no.

This past January, he appeared in DeKalb Recorders Court, was found guilty of violating the code and was fined $1,000. Distraught that he could no longer grow food—more a passion than a business, he says, as his farmers markets sales amounted to little more than a break-even venture—he got himself a lawyer: zoning attorney Doug Dillard, who happens to own Dillwood Farms in Loganville.

Dillard and his associate, Lauren Hansford, set about getting Miller’s two-and-a-quarter-acre property rezoned as R-200, which permits the growing of broccoli and other plants. After a frustrating spring, complicated by a painfully slow (two years and counting) but ongoing county code update project, Miller finally won unanimous approval of the rezoning in July.

But meanwhile, even though Miller was working his way through the county’s own process, the code enforcement office kept issuing citations. The county attorney is still prosecuting those old citations, to the tune of $5,250.

The county attorney, Stephen Whitted, has not returned my call.

“We understand the concept of continuing code violations, but common sense has to step in at some point and say, ‘This guy is not a danger to society–he’s growing vegetables,” Hansford says. “This is becoming nothing more than governmental harassment, and we do not understand why there has been so much vindictiveness.”

Facing another court date on September 24, Miller’s attorneys are trying to work out a resolution to that would benefit everyone: an in-kind donation of produce to an agreed-upon worthy organization.

Why should any of us care? Because this crazy case embodies the sorts of regulation issues that hamper a grass-roots interest in local food production. Going back to the old way–when most of your food was raised in your yard or across the county, and distributed in ways that did not involve planes, trains and tractor-trailers–is not as simple, it seems, as merely returning to nearly forgotten habits. Zoning in some counties around the country has to be rewritten to allow for “crop production,” if that’s what we’re calling big gardens these days. Cities need to consider farmers markets in their permit code–another issue that has cropped up recently in the Atlanta metro area. The state of Georgia needs to ponder the true intent and impact of current animal processing rules, which favor large, factory-style slaughterhouses. And regulators need to be informed that, in general, the People approve of neighbors who grow lettuce.

Miller, meanwhile, is trying to process his anger. “When you stop and think, why are they after someone who is trying to build up local foods?” he asks. “It’s not a big business; it’s not even a profitable business. I make my living with landscaping.”

And he tries to see the positive. “I feel there’s a lot of good I can see right now because I have tons of support–people calling me from outside Georgia, sharing similar stories. It’s kind of refreshing. I feel energized, and I’m moving forward.”

He’s still mulling the possibilities. He thinks that maybe he’d like to use his big garden as a teaching tool, showing others how to raise their own foods or to start their own kitchen gardens.

“I hope it wouldn’t take another hearing. But then again, you really don’t know.”

Photos: Steve Miller and his Clarkston property.

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  • Eric

    Great coverage of this story. Really shows how desperate our counties are for money when they prosecute something like this with this much effort.

  • Hampton

    Way to go after the bad guys DeKalb county! It’s sad that they’re going after someone as idealistic as Steve who simply wants to grow some veggies. Hard to understand.

  • Sharilyn Wood Stalling

    It has been suggested that this county is just after money. I don’t agree. I think some lower level “code enforcer” took Steve Miller’s success as a personal effront and that this is more likely a personal vendetta by an over-zealous individual whose superiors did not reign in before this disgrace was nationally exposed. Wonder what the name is of the person responsible for continuing the harassment on Steve Miller. Any county official who lacks common sense, compassion and knowledge of what supports the common good needs to be replaced.

  • Carmen Sanders

    Great story! If Steve were to teach the “code enforcers” how to grow vegetables, we would have a better Dekalb county for it. Steve Miller is my hero.

  • Heather

    Good Luck Steve Miller! These fines are ridiculous, you will go down as a local hero & I love your idea of teaching the locals a thing or two about gardening.

  • commonsense

    so….he could have a pig farm, which would have been OK, but definitely upset his neighbors (smell)…but he can’t grow a damn garden? This is reeeeediculous. We should all fax letters to attorney Stephen E. Whitted

  • Adam Waterson

    I have similar issues with Code enforcement in Decatur (unincorporated dekalb decatur, not city of). They’ve been harassing me over the past 3 years about having a garden in my front yard. Not liking that I’m growing sunflower seeds or amaranth. I’ve never been given a ticket, but once a tree service dropped off a load of mulch that I subsequently spread over the property. You’d’ve thought I had 15 junk cars creating the leaning tower of redneck pisa in my front yard. They were so offended that I’d have wood chips to keep the weeds down. For a county that claims to be as green as it does, it is really a problem the way they treat urban agriculture.

  • Leekfixer

    I live in DeKalb County and grow vegetables in my front yard…and side yard and back yard too. I am also the manager of the Decatur Farmers Market where Steve used to sell his vegetables. I have been following this closely since. I have had a tiny bit of fear that I could end up in the same situation as Steve.

    Week before last there was a knock at my door about 5 p.m. I opened it to see a uniformed officer standing there. My stomach flipped over. My worst nightmare has just come true I thought. The code enforcement officer informed me that one of my neighbors complained that my garden was too big. Officer Rick said that the code does not specify how big a garden can be so I was not in violation of any codes.
    He is a gardener too so we had a conversation about growing tomatoes before he left.
    Apparently there is much room for interpretation of the code by individual enforcement officers and/or their superiors. Sharilyn may have hit the nail on the head.

  • Janet M

    Thank you for this story. It’s hard to believe that this stuff really happens. What an embarrassment for DeKalb county.

  • Joann

    With home invasions, car thefts, etc., seems to me that the District Attorney could assign this presecutor to an issue that better serves the needs of the community.

  • Dale Wagstaff

    How did this stupid ordinance come into being? Doesn’t anyone go to the County public meetings where these decisions are made?? Wake up, Citizen of Dekalb County and get involved, become aware, what your idiotic government is up to!!!!! QUOTE: Abraham Lincoln: “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”

  • Owen Masterson

    The sale of organic and sustainable fruit and vegetables continues to grow even in this economy. This is just one more manifestation of the attack on small farmers and by extension, us. That’s you and I. Not only is Farmer Miller under attack but we all are. Coast to coast it is happening. And it going to get ugly. We are messing with their bottom line and they do not like it.

    See: http://bit.ly/bl7lI2

    See: http://bit.ly/9ijsFw

  • Nash

    How else is the FDA suppose to rule the world. Educate yourself. This is federal folks. http://www.infowars.com/hr-2749-totalitarian-control-of-the-food-supply/

  • Tanee

    I just hope Mr.Miller doesn’t have to pay that ridiculous fine. I agree with the comment about common sense. It is lacking with many in authority.