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Politics in a Pea Patch

Privatizing Bellingham’s community gardens
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Full disclosure: I’m one of the gardeners who dig the Fairhaven community garden at 10th Street and Wilson Avenue. Just as the over-wintered lettuce is ready for munching, the direction of this and other city-operated community gardens is in doubt. Mayor Kelli Linville and the Parks and Recreation Director James King are proposing to hand off the gardens to volunteer organizations.

King stirred up a fuss late last month when he announced that he’d send out requests for proposals for neighborhood organizations to take over the city’s veggie patches.

It is not a question of money, the director told a meeting of skeptical-to-hostile diggers and weeders in late March, although he does expect privatizing to save $15,000 a year, about 1/286th of what his department spends.

“Will it help our budget? Sure, but that’s not the reason for the change,” he said. “We think the gardens will be better in other hands, and the gardeners will be happier.”

It is a question of money, Mayor Linville said on Friday. She backs King’s proposal because “the City Council directed me to come up with a balanced budget. We are looking at every expenditure, large and small. I asked the whole staff to come up with ways to cut spending and this was James’ suggestion.”

The proposal should not surprise community gardeners. Bellingham—never mind its reputed lefty-ness and high sustainability scores—has not expanded its community gardens program since the 1980s. Meanwhile, the city’s population has grown by about 60 percent, and aged markedly. The U.S. Census says there were 24 percent more old ’hamsters in 2010 than in 2000.

You may think gardening is old person’s baseball, but as city-sponsored activities the two are subject to different financial judgments. No one in the administration goes public about “losses” from city-sponsored baseball, track or swimming, because they are not losses. They’re irreplaceable assets that help to mark the difference between a city and some nameless, undifferentiated place where streets are paved and safe and nothing happens. Surely the same can be said of city-sponsored community gardens.

Currently the city manages three small gardens. There are 195 plots in all, and a waiting list of people who want to garden. One of two gardens on city-owned land is at Lakeway Drive and Woburn Street, the second is in Fairhaven; a third is on privately owned land, leased to the city, on 32nd Street in Happy Valley. The Happy Valley plot is part of a larger garden established by the late Sven Hoyt, a Western Washington University student who drowned in 1972. He was active in environmental causes and wrote for the alternative newspaper Northwest Passage. His brothers have kept the land in community gardening as a memorial to Sven.

Director King announced last month that he would cancel the city’s lease of the Hoyt garden. He has since hinted that perhaps he won’t.

Linville and King point to the four-year-old, privately run Cordata Neighborhood Association garden as the model they want to follow. Gardeners there rent 50 4-foot by 15-foot raised beds for $40 per year and pay for the water. They garden on land made available, free, by Caitec, the north end development corporation. Unpaid volunteers of the Cordata Neighborhood Association do the administrative work that Parks and Rec staff performs at the city-managed gardens. The city is barely a presence.

King says he has watched this kind of volunteer management system succeed in other places. He’s vague about where that might have been. The Mayor says other cities are turning their community gardens over to volunteer groups, but couldn’t name any at the moment. The search for alternative models would appear to have started and ended at the city’s northern boundary.

“Cordata’s the one we really looked at,” Linville said. “That one’s really impressive. It really works. The people are doing the work themselves, and administering the program without city help. It really builds community. From what I’ve seen, it’s the way other cities are doing it.”

A search of west side cities the size of Bellingham turns up Kirkland, across Lake Washington from Seattle. City-run community gardens are flourishing there, and Cathy Anderson, who runs the program, says Kirkland is hoping to expand it. City government creates the garden space, provides water and oversight and collects the rent.

On the dry side of the mountains, the City of Kennewick (same size as Bellingham, give or take a few) is right now launching an aggressive program that enables low-income and disabled citizens to garden, free of charge. The city handles registration and regulation, and pays for the raised planting beds, soil, water and seeds.

In Seattle, where city-sponsored pea patches may or may not have been invented, there are community gardens of the city-managed variety in more than 90 locations. Most are on public land, although the city also assists a large variety of non-government ownerships, from churches to immigrant associations. The Seattle Department of Neighborhoods registers gardeners, collects the rent, enforces the rules, provides water, keeps an eye open for idle land that might be leased or bought for the next P-Patch, and finds grant money to pay for it.

While the City of Bellingham searches for ways to shed itself of its garden program, Seattle searches for quantity discounts on organic fertilizer and distributes it—free—to its P-Patch renters.

Admittedly, comparing Seattle to Bellingham is like scallions to strawberries. But numerical ratios can speak to municipal attitudes. Here are two:

Seattle administers one community garden plot for every 123 of its citizens. The City of Bellingham provides one for each 419 of us.

The privatizing proposal comes at a time when concerns about food security are increasingly part of the common conversation. When has there been so much discussion of the health and economic benefits of growing your own food, or the fragile reality of transporting our apples from New Zealand and our Tilapia from Vietnam? Community gardens are a tiny sliver of part of a solution. A 10 by 20 plot can produce food worth several times the cost of renting and planting it, not to mention the superior quality of the food and the pleasure of being tired and dirty at the end of a spring day.

Details of the transformation are uncertain, but some are listed as “possible,” in a letter from King dated a week ago. The kinds of duties he suggests the gardeners take over are the very ones for which the legitimacy of the city is helpful, and for which volunteers would seem least suited: “establishing fees and charges, assigning plots, collecting rents, resolving problems.”

Resolving problems presumably includes warning fellow gardeners to keep the weeds down and the deer fence up, to tear out the raspberries they planted in violation of garden rules, and sorting out disagreements over what grant money was mishandled and who should resign accordingly—the sort of activity that can turn nice neighborhood associations into squabbling centers of mutual suspicion.

All of this may be history by the time the snap peas are full and sweet. It requires city council approval. Council President Seth Fleetwood says the idea “requires some scrutiny,” and he hopes to have a council work session on the subject before any changes are implemented.

Council member Gene Knutson, whose committee will get the first swing at the proposed policy change, admitted, “I’m not very happy with the proposal or the way it came about. The community garden program is a very valuable one. We will do what we can to right the ship.”

Given the growing need for gardens and local food production, you might expect city government to plow new dirt, rather than hand off what it has. Growing the program under city management seems unlikely, however. King agrees there may be idle public lands in the city. But don’t expect kale and kohlrabi to grow there any time soon.

“We might expand under the new model,” he said, “with the gardeners doing the entire program on their own. But under our current model? No, we would not be doing that.”

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