|Most gardeners say their hobby brings them peace. But things have been anything but peaceful lately at the Willowgate community garden, where more than a dozen gardeners say the city is railroading them over petty infractions.
Willowgate, located north of Central Expressway near Moffett Boulevard, is a patch of land owned by the city that is divided into 84 plots. There, 84 plot-holders grow flowers, fruits and vegetables, paying the city about $37 a year for the right to do so.
The angry gardeners say the unrest, which began in earnest two months ago, is due to overzealous actions by Allison Peterson, the garden's overseer, who is also a Parks and Recreation manager. Two years ago, Peterson stepped up efforts to straighten up the garden, and things have been rotten ever since, users say.
Most recently, Peterson sent plot-holders notices on rule violations -- plants blocking pathways, for example -- leading some to believe that if the problems weren't fixed, their plots would be taken away and given to someone else on the city's long waiting list.
"It reminds me of our years back in the Soviet Union," said Russian immigrant Luba Kaplun. "We are free people [in America], and we really expected to be treated with respect."
The increased pressure at Willowgate may have its roots elsewhere in town. Last fall, neighbors near Beatrice and Bonnie streets began a campaign to prevent the city from establishing a new community garden there. They held up Willowgate as an example of what would happen to their neighborhood, saying the "ugly and messy" garden would lower home values and bring excessive traffic to the neighborhood. Some were concerned about loitering and drinking in the garden, and even crime.
Had the new garden been built, about half of the 120 people on the city's waiting list would have received a plot at Beatrice and Bonnie streets. (The average wait time for a plot is three years, according to city staff.) But in January, the neighbors successfully swayed a majority of the Parks and Rec Commission, which rejected the proposal. The City Council will vote on the issue within the next few months.
Willowgate gardeners were outraged when they learned of the commission vote.
"Tell them I'm a gardener and I've interrupted 10 different burglaries over the years," one plot-holder said, refuting the notion that a garden increases crime.
"The commission went along with these people because they made a lot of noise," another gardener said of the Bonnie Street neighbors.
Ed Mussman, the lone dissenting vote on the commission, seemed just as baffled as the gardeners by the vote. He said half of the speakers were for it, half against it.
"I thought they had a very nice plan, better than Willowgate," Mussman said. But commissioners were "impressed" by the Bonnie Street neighbors, he said.
"Some people think their neighborhood is more important than somebody else's. How do you find a happy medium? I've been around this area 27 years now, and you know there are some sacrifices you have to make for the community."
Anger at Willowgate came to a head last Thursday during an annual plot-holders' meeting with Peterson in attendance. Several gardeners confronted her over recent actions, with one accusing her of wanting them to be "84 model gardeners."
"We're not going to tell you how to garden your plot," Peterson answered.
"Oh yes you are," another shot back.
A proposal in January from the city to mark each plot with rebar stakes was especially controversial among gardeners due to safety concerns. The city ended up not using the stakes.
"You never know what she's going to do next," said Kaplun later. "These kinds of measures were not expected."
Parks and Recreation manager Jim Teixeira stepped in at one point during the meeting to tell people that the city was there to "facilitate" the garden, not "dictate" how they should use it. He said the gardeners' belief that they could run things themselves would be "true as long as you do it."
"It's not productive to blame Ally for what she's done," one gardener said before the end of the meeting.
Peterson did not return phone calls from the Voice seeking comment.
The meeting ended with Willowgate gardeners deciding the best way to deal with the problem was to organize a steering committee that would meet regularly.
"We need a place to put this stuff; otherwise it's just individuals being angry" one gardener said.
In pushing for a committee, Yevgeny Kaplun, Luba's husband, said that "history has shown pure democracy doesn't work." Instead, he proposed dividing the 84-plot garden into six "districts," with six representatives.
Eventually, six people volunteered to be on the steering committee, which will be coming up with options to make improvements.
In a phone interview later, Teixeira noted that Willowgate gardeners have organized a steering committee once before.
After the meeting, several gardeners claimed that the development of 11 row homes next to the garden was "the driving force" behind the city's increased efforts to clean up the garden.
However, the developer of the homes at 646 Willowgate Ave., Abbey Helweh, said he had no problems with the garden's appearance and "never mentioned anything like that to the city."
"We thought the garden is better for us than having condominiums or homes in the back," Helweh said. "We've tried to accommodate for the garden in the design."
In fact, he said, he is working with the city to replace the fence along the back of the garden that many gardeners have complained about.
Are you receiving Express, our free daily e-mail edition? See a sample and sign-up for Express.