It’s not every day one’s front yard becomes the crux of a city council meeting. Wednesday was that day for Quentin Nguyen of Falcon Heights.
Since last fall, Nguyen's been trying to turn his gigantic front yard into a community garden. With some planning and hundreds of dollars raised by encouraging friends and neighbors, he set aside a 0.08-acre space, ripped up the sod, and got his mulch and soil delivered earlier this month. It was really happening.
Until it wasn’t. Last week, the Falcon Heights City Council passed an ordinance blocking – you guessed it – front yard vegetable gardens. Nguyen got a terse letter letting him know soon afterward.
City Administrator Sack Thongvanh told City Pages that this was merely a temporary measure – a stopgap to give city leaders time to decide what, if anything, they wanted to do about this. A few concerned neighbors had called asking about the garden, and how having a community plot in a residential area could impact traffic.
Nguyen said he couldn’t help but feel like his project, specifically, was on trial. That was the energy going into Wednesday night, when the council was set to deliberate a request to rescind the new ordinance.
Social distancing rules were in effect, so people entered the city council chambers in makeshift fleets, made their cases at the podium, and let a staffer spray it down with disinfectant between each speaker. Despite the sterile environment, things did get a little tense.
A few of Nguyen’s neighbors approached the podium and expressed concerns – about everything from elevated, dangerous traffic and people potentially coming into the neighborhood at all hours of the night, to “normalizing” the presence of community outsiders on front lawns. One wondered who, God forbid, was going to be responsible if “somebody decides to plant some cannabis” in there.
When it was Nguyen's turn at the podium, he addressed some of those speakers by name, reminding them this was his yard, his property. Nguyen declared the whole situation “sad,” and said his “fundamental liberties” had been disrespected.
“I feel like it’s not about a garden anymore,” he said. “This is about neighbors against neighbors.”
Afterward, many came forward to speak in favor of striking the rule and allowing Nguyen to go through with his project. They complained that this "quickly" passed ordinance was solely in response to the complaints of a few, and said people could use a little extra fresh food in their pantries and something peaceful and physical to do outdoors, now more than ever.
A few asked why Nguyen – and not, say, any of the other homeowners on the block who allegedly had lettuce beds of their own in their front yards – had received a letter from the city effectively halting his activities.
At one point, the question, "What is a vegetable?" was voiced, and very nearly answered. (The speaker explained he was merely being rhetorical and did not actually want a definition.)
Thongvanh explained the city generally acts based on the concerns of residents, even those put forward by individuals. A few years ago, the city adopted new rules allowing the cultivation of native plants in front yards specifically because Nguyen had been interested in pursuing that at the time. This, he said, was no different.
Even in the midst of a pandemic, between in-person comments and letters read aloud from remote viewers, the subject stretched for hours before the council even got the chance to deliberate.
And deliberate they did. Council Member Mark Miazga confessed he’d lost sleep the night before over what to do about his, and said he'd spoken to “40 people” in the community over the last week.
Council Member Yakasah Wehyee said most of the people he’d spoken to had been against the ordinance, and thought it best to rescind it and draft a “better” one.
Council Member Kay Andrews didn’t agree.
“I don’t believe we acted in haste,” she said. The point of the ordinance was to give the city time to put some parameters on this whole front yard vegetable garden thing – let commissions and public hearings take their course. That could take months, but the idea was to “seek community input.”
In the end, after much discussion and butting up against the night’s time limit, the council took a split vote, with two in favor of rescinding the ordinance, and three opposed. The ban on Nguyen's garden plot would remain in place – at least, for now.
Nguyen didn’t respond to interview requests Wednesday evening, but after the meeting, the Change.org petition asking Falcon Heights to get rid of the ordinance on his behalf had reached nearly 11,000 signatures and was still climbing.