Community garden bulldozed in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

On the afternoon of September 19, 2012, community gardener Ellen Crist stopped by her plot to pick some late summer vegetables for dinner and found that the garden had disappeared. A local nonprofit organization, Green Urban Initiative, had built the garden in the spring of 2012 under an Adopt-A-Lot agreement with the city of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: whether the agreement was a lease or a license is unclear from the news stories. While many in the news stories about the garden refer to the agreement as a lease, it is more likely that the agreement was a license agreement, very similar to Baltimore’s Adopt a Lot/Power in Dirt program.

Harrisburg City Council President Wanda Williams ordered the garden demolished after a handful of neighbors complained about its unkempt appearance. Some neighbors had reported that the garden attracted drug-related criminal activity by providing hiding places for guns, drugs and people. However, other neighbors had enjoyed the garden and disagreed that any crimes had taken place there. According to many, the garden was surrounded by many other vacant lots with high weeds and trash.

While the details are still unfolding in this particular case, the Harrisburg story illustrates two important points for community gardeners to keep in mind.

1. The importance of community buy-in.

The gardeners admit that they should have done a better job of soliciting input from their community members and conducting outreach.

In this clip, the neighbor who led the fight against the garden explains why she didn’t support it:

Gardeners, especially those who are new to a neighborhood or live outside the neighborhood, must be careful in the way that they present their projects and must be inclusive of all community members.

2. The legal tenuousness of license agreements.

License agreements made with city governments are not leases! Cities may cancel these agreements at any time, for any (or no) reason. Neighbors who work on lots under Adopt A Lot agreements should know that their work is not legally protected.

The Harrisburg situation is an unusual one and reflects serious dysfunction in city government. However, if a developer or other person ever wants to purchase a lot where a community garden already exists, any city would sell that lot in order to encourage development and collect property tax revenue. In Baltimore, when a lot is “adopted” by a community, the city makes it slightly more complicated (but not impossible) for that lot to be sold.

Don’t let the tenuousness of the Adopt-A-Lot agreement discourage you from cleaning and greening your neighborhood! But be prepared for the possibility that the city will take advantage of your newly beautified neighborhood and sell that lot to a person or corporation who wants to develop and pay property taxes on it.

Posted on by Becky Witt

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