Monday, May 4, 2015

Properly Managed Community Gardens Benefit Neighborhoods

Q:       I want to become a member of community garden. Where do I begin?
A:        Many community gardens are run by local non-profit organizations, sometimes in connection with a local university or the local municipality’s community development department. For more information, check the websites of organizations such as Civic Garden Center in Cincinnati, Get Green in Columbus and Green City Growers in Cleveland.

Q:       If I want to start my own community garden, how can I obtain land?
A:        Some municipalities allow gardeners to lease land directly from the city, as municipalities benefit by putting vacant plots of land to use. These programs may allow the gardener to obtain title to the land after they revitalize the plot for a certain number of years. You may also lease land from a private individual (via short-term lease agreements), or purchase your own plot. Some cities may even provide you with a grant to subsidize these initial costs. 
            While gardening is a low-risk activity and injuries are infrequent, both private parties and cities may require you to buy insurance for liability arising out of the garden’s operations, and to agree that the owner will not be responsible for such liability, as a condition of the lease.  

Q:       What should I consider when searching for a suitable plot of land?
A:        First, you will want to make sure the land is properly zoned. Plots of land are generally divided into residential, commercial and industrial uses. These may not permit community gardening activities, depending on the city. And even if permitted, each zone may restrict the activities. One zone may restrict the height of structures/vegetation, while another may restrict how close structures/vegetation can be to neighboring properties. Check with your city to ensure that your garden will comply with its zoning requirements. Even if the prospective land is not ideally zoned, however, you may be able to obtain a variance (or exception) from the local building department for your specific use. Additionally, if your garden is in a suburban environment, you should be aware of any relevant homeowner’s association regulations. 
            You should also make sure the plot of land contains no environmental hazards, especially in urban areas. Prior activities on the land, or activities on land surrounding your plot, may have left behind contaminants. This is particularly important if you plan to buy the land, because responsibility for such hazards will fall on you if the local municipality becomes aware of them. Try to find out how the plot was used in the past, and check with those in the community about the condition of the land. You might also contact the community’s building department or the local EPA district office to inquire about testing the property’s soil. 

Q:       How should I manage the garden?
A:        Some gardens operate as community endeavors, in which no one member has claim to any particular plot or plant, and all members are responsible for the whole garden. Others assign individual plots to specific members. Some gardens are open to the public, while others are “closed-gate” and open only to members. How your garden operates is up to you.
Before starting a garden, you should draft a model gardening agreement that each member must sign. The agreement should address the manner of the garden’s operation, pertinent rules and regulations (including rules required by local ordinance on plant and structure height, location, etc.), the election or appointment of officers who will lead the garden’s operations (e.g., a president and treasurer), assignment of a particular plot to each member (if applicable), indemnification of the landowner, and responsibility for supplies. It should also address the consequences of taking produce from another member without permission. Such an agreement will help members understand their role in the garden and will help resolve any disputes that may arise, which will allow the garden to operate efficiently.  

Q:       What should I know if I want to sell the products of my garden?
A:        You are more likely to encounter issues if you sell your products by setting prices and making profit, as opposed to covering costs through donations. It would be wise to contact the local municipality to inquire about a license/permit before trying to sell your garden’s products on your own. You may also be able to sell your products at a local farmers’ market, though you will likely have to pay a small fee to help cover the market’s costs. 

Q:       How will a garden benefit my community?
A:        Properly tended community gardens are easier on the eyes than unkempt vacant lots, and will provide air quality and health benefits to your community. In addition, studies have shown that the presence of community gardens helps to strengthen ties among the community, which, in turn, helps lower crime rates in their neighborhoods. 

This “Law You Can Use” consumer information column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. It was prepared by Cleveland attorney Justin D. Stevenson, Esq. Articles appearing in this column are intended to provide broad, general information about the law. Before applying this information to a specific legal problem, readers are urged to seek advice from an attorney.



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