New garden ordinance planned for Falcon Heights

By Anne Holzman

Falcon Heights is taking another crack at setting rules for home gardens after a series of council actions last spring left many residents frustrated with a temporary ban in place on all new or expanded gardens.

One yield from the garden discussion is a Change.org petition with 10,000 signatures by September asking to add vegetables to gardens and to grant a variance to allow a front yard, communal vegetable garden proposed online by a resident.

Community Development Coordinator Justin Markon said he expects the Planning Commission to hold a public hearing on amending the city’s vegetation ordinance at its Oct. 27 meeting.

Markon added, “The draft ordinance that’s moving forward will not include community gardens on regular residential lots.”

One year ago, city leaders began discussing how to broaden an existing vegetation ordinance that allowed only turf and trees on resi­dential lots—all other gardens required a permit, although those rules had not been routinely enforced.

City Manager Sack Thongvanh told the Bugle in early September that the original request to allow native plants had come from Quentin Nguyen, who had kept a widely admired, pollinator friendly garden in St. Paul. Nguyen moved to a new address on Snelling Avenue in Falcon Heights and wanted to do the same thing there.

After several discussions, the council in February amended the city code, adding native plants to the list of allowable vegetation with specifications for setbacks, maintenance and other concerns mainly pertaining to front yards. Soon afterwards, a buzz on social media reached City Hall: Nguyen had proposed a front yard vegetable garden and invited neighbors to collaborate.

Thongvanh said he’d heard from a neighbor who supported native landscapes but was less pleased with the vegetable idea. “It became a bigger deal when he talked about a larger scale garden,” Thongvanh said. “He was told by his neighbors multiple times that he should contact the city.”

The Bugle contacted Nguyen but he declined comment for this story. A GoFundMe online fundraiser had been created April 22 and signed “Quentin.” It had requested help to purchase a sod kicker, 40 cubic yards of garden soil, wood chips and other supplies. The post suggested, “What else could be better” than having some neighbors/gardeners pitch in and work together to grow vegetables for some healthy fresh produce during the short, Minnesota summer and especially during the pandemic.

In early May, Thongvanh asked the council to look into the issue again. At a workshop meeting, he supplied summaries of nearby cities’ front yard policies and recommended an interim ordinance banning all new or expanded gardens for one year or until the city’s vegetation ordinance is amended.

At its May 13 meeting, the council unanimously adopted the interim ordinance.

Shortly afterwards, a Change.org petition appeared online, posted by Colin Cureton, who lives in St. Paul and works in the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics at the University of Minnesota. The petition stated the interim ordinance “appears to be an action specifically targeting a local homeowner, Quentin Nguyen.” It noted that Nguyen received a letter immediately after the ordinance passed but other nearby homeowners with front yard gardens did not.

The petition calls on the city of Falcon Heights to extend the vegetation ordinance to include vegetables, and to issue a variance for Nguyen’s project. As of early September, Change.org had recorded more than 10,000 signatures on the petition.

At its May 27 meeting, the City Council heard a request to rescind the interim ordinance. The minutes show that council member Mark Miazga said, “We always strive to cultivate a caring community, but I think in retrospect we made a mistake.”

Comments from 21 members of the public are recorded in the minutes, along with passages from five letters. Comments cover a range of concerns about the rules, both for and against the interim ordinance.

The motion to rescind failed 3-2, with Kay Andrews, Melanie Leehy and Mayor Randy Gustafson voting to keep the interim ordinance in place. Miazga and Yakasah Wehyee voted to rescind.

In June, the Planning and Environment commissions formed a garden subcommittee to solicit feedback and propose further code amendments.

In August, residents were invited via the city’s weekly online newsletter to participate in a survey about residential and community gardens. The subcommittee met in September to prepare language adding edible plants to the existing list of vegetation allowed in home gardens.

Thongvanh said the October hearing will be open to all and held in person. As of mid-September, the city was on a waiting list to install technology for online participation.

Thongvanh said the goal is to amend the ordinance by the end of the year, which would end the ban on new gardens in time for residents to plan for next spring.

Anne Holzman, a former St. Anthony Park resident, is a regular Bugle freelancer who covers Falcon Heights and Lauderdale news.

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