By RESHMA KIRPALANI
July 12, 2011
Julie Bass faces the prospect of going to jail for what she's growing in her front yard.
The illegal growth is tomatos. And zuchinis, peppers and other edible and what normally would be legal plants.
The officials in Bass' hometown of Oak Park, Mich., have charged her with growing "vegetable garden in front yard space." If convicted, she could spend up to 93 days in jail.
Bass said that the criminal charge "blew my mind." "Sometimes we laugh because it seems so silly and sometimes we cry because it's so pathetic. A lot of times it does not seem real," she told ABCNews.com.
Bass has insisted on a jury trial and a pre-trial hearing is set for July 26. If the case goes to court Bass' attorney Solomon Radner does not believe that a jury will convict his client of a crime.
"Michelle Obama plants vegetables on White House front lawn. I don't think the jury is going to think that it's suitable for the White House, but it's not suitable for Oak Park," said Radner.
The first lady's office, which is encouraging growing fresh vegetables to help fight childhood obesity, declined to comment on the Oak Park vegetable case.
Bass got the idea to plant a garden in front yard after it was torn up over a busted sewage pipe.
"There were piles of dirt outside and we knew we had to do something," Bass said. "We looked into putting in sod but it was shockingly expensive, so we starting looking into other books to do something a little more cost effective. We found pictures in a bunch of different library books of garden beds. It was perfect and we had a blank canvas."
Front Yard Vegetable Garden Called a Crime
In May, Bass started planting green tomatoes, zucchini and baby peppers among other vegetables, in five large, decorative planter boxes in the family's front yard. She claims that she sought and received approval from both neighbors and city officials in her Detroit suburb.
Oak Park's Planning and Technology director Kevin Rulkowski told ABC News affiliate WXYZ, "I told her don't do it, and she went ahead and did it anyway."
Bass said that Rulkowski's claims are "completely not true." She said, "He told me that he found out that we couldn't put fences around the front of the property, but he wasn't able to find anything specific to vegetables…He said the city allows decorative plantings."
According to Bass,the family hired professionals to make the planter boxes, bought tomato trellises, paving stones and a swing at a cost of over $500.
"What I understood is that they wanted something that would look nice," Bass said. "We thought that if we do it in a nice orderly way, we could make it pretty and aesthetically pleasing."
An Oak Park city councilman allegedly received two complaints about the garden resembling a "New Orleans cemetery." After an initial warning, Oak Park code enforcement officer Kevin Jones issued Bass a citation on June 8 for growing a vegetable garden on the front yard of her own property.
"At first we just thought the city was trying to bully us into backing down," Bass said. "There are people all over the city of Oak Park have planter boxes."
The Oak Park city screening and landscaping ordinance states, "All unpaved portions of the [screening and landscaping] site shall be planted with grass ground cover, shrubbery, or other suitable live plant material."
The debate is over what is "suitable."
"If you look at the dictionary, suitable means common. You can look all throughout the city and you'll never find another vegetable garden that consumes the entire front yard," Rulkowski told ABC affiliate WXYZ.
Radner disagrees. "Suitable does not have any meaning," he said. "What one person may think is pretty or suitable another person may think is terribly ugly or not suitable. That's why I think this prosecution is unconstitutional."
Radner also pointed to an exception listed in the city ordinance that specifically allows vegetable gardens: "Exempted from the provisions of this article, inclusive, are flower gardens, plots of shrubbery, vegetable gardens and small grain plots."
"You can't make this stuff up," Radner said.