Home Vegetable Gardens Spark Debate Over Local Control And Food Insecurity

Mar 17, 2021

Credit UIS Community Garden Facebook Page

Elmhurst resident Nicole Virgil got into home gardening after researching the industrial food process and watching documentaries like “Food Inc.”

But after she and her husband set up a homemade hoop house in her backyard to protect her vegetable garden during the winter, she received multiple citations from the city for violating local building codes.

“It didn't occur to us that there would be a problem with covering the garden in the winter because there's gazebos, and shade cloths, and outdoor living rooms and all kinds of different structures all over town,” Virgil said. “So we just thought this would be another type of structure.”

Anecdotal experiences like Virgil’s inspired some state legislators to try to stop cities from making overly strict rules that make it difficult for homeowners to grow vegetables on private property.

State Rep. Sonya Harper (D-Chicago), whose proposal HB 633 would preserve Illinoisians’ right to garden, said for many people gardening is more than a hobby.

“We just want to make it so everyone is able to grow in their own backyard, especially during this time of extra food insecurity for folks during the global health pandemic,” Harper said. “I represent communities that have had some food deserts for decades and we turn to backyard gardening and community gardening to fulfill our own healthy food needs.”

Harper said her bill is different from a similar measure proposed last General Assembly in that it does not outline what specific structures could be allowed for gardening. Additionally, the proposal would still allow for municipalities to regulate other aspects of home vegetable gardens — including water usage, controlling invasive species, and establishing height limits for fences and structures.

However, local government organizations still take issue with a statewide approach that limits their ability to regulate properties.

“Our issue is not with gardening,” said Illinois Municipal League Executive Director Brad Cole. “Our issue is with the local authority to enact zoning regulations and building and neighborhood standards that are specific to an individual community.

Cole said issues with local gardening ordinances should be handled by elected members of zoning boards and not the state government. Additionally, Cole said he is concerned the measure could lead to Illinosians having to consult with the state legislature to determine when, where, and what sorts of foods can be grown in private gardens.

To Ari Bagil, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, such concerns from local government groups are hyperbolic.

“Perhaps legislation like this wouldn't be necessary if local government code enforcement hadn't gotten as restrictive as it has,” Bagil said. “There is a time and a place for restrictions that dictate what you can grow on your own property and whether or not you grow food on your own property. And the place for these restrictions is in a homeowner's association.”

Bagil said when he worked to pass a similar garden protection bill in Florida in 2019, the proposal received bipartisan support because limiting local government restrictions on home gardens is in line with political ideologies on the left and right.

“For more conservative leaning folks, this is very much an issue of property rights and the ability to use your own property in a peaceful and productive way without the arbitrary interference of the government,” Bagil said. “On the other side of the aisle, there are really important concerns like environmental conscientiousness, wholesomeness of our food and maintaining control from seed to plate that come into play.”

The Illinois House Agriculture and Conservation Committee recently approved the bill, HB 633, which could be voted on by lawmakers later this spring.