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Monday, January 20, 2014

Community Gardening and the Law

Community Gardeners do not own the land they garden. Community Gardens have always offered access to land to grow food and community on land that is owned by a municipal entity or a private landowner. The exception are Land Trust community gardens but they are a small percentage of the total of community gardens. Land tenure has always been an issue and many of the posts I have written have been about land issues. There is a movement to use urban lands for commercial urban agricultural projects that threatens to monopolize land and funds that might otherwise be used for community gardens. Community Gardeners have to be continually vigilant in monitoring city government attempts to place limitations on community gardening efforts both on a citywide scale and in terms of individual projects. Many cities either have enacted laws or policies concerning urban agriculture and community gardening. Some have given community gardening legitimacy and protections while some have placed limits on where community gardens can be and how they operate. The most supportive policies saw a great deal of lobbying and input from community gardeners.

A couple of events in New York City over the past 3 weeks have highlighted the ongoing struggle that community gardeners face to keep access to the land they do not own. At 5 am on Saturday, Dec 28, 2013 the Boardwalk Community Garden in Coney Island, Brooklyn was bulldozed by iStar Development who plans to develop a amphitheater on the site. The Boardwalk Garden had spent the past 14 months recovering from Superstorm Sandy. The Atlantic Ocean covered the garden with at least 6 feet of salt water destroying much of the garden.

Boardwalk Garden after Sandy 
This parcel covered by the garden is part of a larger redevelopment effort in the area which has progressed in fits and starts and has been a threat to this community garden and others for years. This project has been the darling of now former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz and the timing of the bulldozers just 3 days before he was to leave office could not be coincidental. The developers may not receive the same support from new  Brooklyn and NYC elected officials. The community gardeners and their advocates are in the process of planning and filing a lawsuit claiming that the community gardens land was mapped parkland. In New York State taking of parkland or "alienation of parkland" without the approval of the state legislature is not allowed. There is no record of this approval and the parkland designation will have to be verified but the courts will probably have to decide this case.

photo by Hubert J. Steed

Coincidently just 10 days after the bulldozing on January 7, 2014, a judge ruled that NYU could not take land in Manhattan currently being used as small parks and a community garden for part of the university's expansion efforts. In this case the land was mapped as roadway as part of a failed effort by Robert Moses to develop an expressway through lower Manhattan that was first proposed in 1941, small parts were built but funds for the completion were never allocated and the project stopped for good in 1971. These parcels in question were assembled as approach roads but as the expressway project languished they became neighborhood parks and the community garden. One parcel became a living art installation called 'Time Landscape' by artist Alan Sonfist which recreates the landscape on the site before European settlement. Adjacent to the 'Time Landscape', The LaGuardia Corner Garden has been on the site since 1981. It is a relatively small but vibrant community garden. The garden is right next to a supermarket which makes it a great location for those of us who like to photograph such juxtapositions. The community garden group along with other community groups have been fighting the NYU plan for many years. The timing of the judges ruling could not have been better for the Boardwalk Garden although both cases have well funded opponents and the appeals process may go on for years. Fortunately the Laguardia Corner Garden was not bulldozed. The Boardwalk Garden was not so fortunate.

The struggle that community gardeners face in dealing with laws and policies continues. It doesn't seem that there will be a time when no community gardens will face what the Boardwalk Garden and the LaGuardia Corner Garden have faced. There will always be some community garden in some city that is threatened by development. Community gardeners will have to remain vigilant and to know the laws of their city and state to insure that their community gardens will remain and flourish.