IJ Activism Seeks to Vindicate Life, Liberty and the Roots of Happiness

April 1, 2013

The Institute for Justice’s litigation and activism are dedicated to vindicating a rule of law under which individuals can control their destinies as free and responsible members of society. Jennifer and Jason Helvenston of Orlando, Fla., take their role as responsible members of society very seriously, by choosing to commit their lives to sustainability: They built their home with naturally sourced materials, harvest eggs from their backyard chickens and grow vegetables in their front yard. Not only does their garden provide them with their own food, but it has become a community attraction where the couple teaches local youth about homegrown vegetables. The Helvenstons embody life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They have found life in the soil and the food they grow for themselves, liberty in their self-sufficiency and happiness in the contributions their garden makes to their community.

But the Orlando City Council—which aspires to be “the greenest city in America”—claimed that the Helvenstons’ harmless, well-tended front yard garden was in non-compliance with the city code, and threatened to fine the couple $500 a day unless they uprooted it and replaced it with lawn. Since the Helvenstons were originally cited, deadline after deadline to uproot their garden were postponed, and the future of the Helvenstons’ front yard, the source of most of their food, has hung in the balance. Undoubtedly, the city was waiting for media attention to abate before it enforced the law.

Recognizing this as an assault on their property rights, the Helvenstons teamed up with the Institute for Justice to force the city’s hand and fight back. In December, IJ and the Helvenstons launched our “Patriot Garden: Plant a Seed, Change the Law” campaign, asking property owners across Orlando and the nation to plant a “Patriot Garden” in their front yards—even just a few seeds—to help tell the city and local governments everywhere, “Hands off our property and hands off our food.”

Interested participants contacted us through a website we created and received a packet of radish seeds and a yard sign with the name of the campaign. More than 1,000 requests for seeds poured in from across Orlando and the nation—even from as far away as New Zealand.

Jennifer and Jason coined the phrase “Patriot Garden” because during both World Wars, it was considered your patriotic duty to plant a garden and grow your own food. Now, what was once considered a patriotic duty is treated as a nuisance.

Our protest and the support its media coverage has generated—including articles on the Helvenstons featured at least twice on Drudge Report—are working. Instead of rubber-stamping the planning board’s new ordinance (which, while technically legalizing front yard vegetable gardens would nonetheless force the Helvenstons to uproot much of theirs), the Orlando City Commission is pausing—and sometimes a pause is the first step towards victory. The city has indicated it may amend the proposal to allow more garden on a property, and commissioners appear to be receptive to input from people who actually know something about vegetable gardens . . . like the Helvenstons themselves.

Behind closed doors, the city is likely debating setback footage, height restrictions and other regulations, none of which have anything to do with the public’s health and safety. But in the court of public opinion, our message remains clear: Americans have the right to use the property they have worked so hard to own as they see fit, in a peaceful way that does not harm others. And we will not rest until that right is universally recognized, respected and vindicated.

Christina Walsh is IJ’s director of activism and coalitions.

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