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.