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An Oak Park homeowner's looking at jail time over a vegetable garden: When a busted sewer line led to a torn-up front yard, the Michigan woman replaced her front planting area with vegetables instead of grass. The city already ticketed the woman and pressed misdemeanor charges over the property she owns--forcing her to legally defend herself, now against a 3-month jail sentence.
It's an uncommon argument that's more reminiscent of battles with HOAs than between homeowners and city officials.
It all started when an Oak Park, Michigan, homeowner planted fresh veggies like basil, cabbage, carrots, tomatoes and cucumbers in her yard. That would be her front yard -- of a residential property she owns. The veggies aren't untended. They're live and neat. But at least one city official wants the Bass' to switch those out to flowers more to his liking -- despite the fact city code doesn't define a specific requirement of such a type. So while those veggies are alive and well, it seems the Michigan city wants them removed.
The city, in fact, isn't just requesting removal of the vegetables -- it's demanding them be gone or wants to throw Julie Bass in jail.
Oak Park homeowner Julie Bass says: “We thought we’re minding our own business, doing something not ostentatious and certainly not obnoxious or nothing that is a blight on the neighborhood, so we didn’t think people would care very much.”
But as it turned out, someone did care -- and that someone got Oak Park city code enforcement on the scene.
“They [Oak Park city officials] warned us at first that we had to move the vegetables from the front, that no vegetables were allowed in the front yard. We didn’t move them because we didn’t think we were doing anything wrong, even according to [Oak Park] city code we didn’t think we were doing anything wrong. So they ticketed us and charged me with a misdemeanor.”
Yes, the city really did issue a ticket over vegetables -- followed by filing a misdemeanor against the homeowner. But misdemeanor charges are nothing compared to what Julie Bass faces now.
The Oak Park city code: "all unpaved portions of the site shall be planted with grass or ground cover or shrubbery or other suitable live plant material."
"Suitable" would be the key word here.
The Bass family sees green vegetables as "suitable".
With the standard Webster's definition for "suitable" being 'adapted to a use or purpose' -- which would seem to make Michigan homeowner Julie Bass very correct. Those vegetable both suit the situation in use and purpose. And if the legal battle all came down to the term "suitable" it would make things very difficult for the city. Perhaps that's what city officials fear, since at least one Oak Park official is marketing things very differently. He's got a different definition -- a very unusual one, that isn't showing up in Webster's like is claimed.
Oak Park’s Planning and Technology Director Kevin Rulkowski is making things interesting: Rulkowski claims, “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.”
Oak Park city's Rulkowski claims that "if you look around and you look in any other community, what’s common to a front yard is a nice, grass yard with beautiful trees and bushes and flowers."
It's unclear what dictionary Rulkowski is utilizing. With his factually-sounding statement, it would seem the city's planning director has discovered some rare form of a definition in an unabridged dictionary -- though it doesn't appear likely. Merriam Webster's standard dictionary definition of "suitable" does not, ironically, consider 'common' to be the word's common definition. Nor does the nation's legal system utilize a definition of 'common' for the term "suitable".
It all seems very akin to California's attempt -- and attempts by other U.S. states -- to change the definition of a 'physical presence' for online companies, in order to meet the 'need' to garner taxes. The concept battles a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that defines a phsyical presence as a brick-and-mortar store. But California wants taxes from online retailers -- and Governor Jerry Brown has signed into law what is essentially a new definition of 'presence'. As Amazon phrases it, the new California state law "specifically imposes the collection of taxes from consumers on sales by online retailers -- including but not limited to those referred by California-based marketing affiliates...even if those retailers have no physical presence in the state."
Oak Park and its prosecutor seem to be working the same angle that California lawmakers have been choosing in a battle against Amazon.com over taxes: Change the definition -- or, at least, change it enough to benefit your legal needs -- and you 'win'. Though that 'win' may prove a bit difficult for the Michigan city and prosecution. In this vegetable garden case, things appear to fall a lot more along the lines of homeowner harrassment.
In a bizarre prosecution that arguably reeks of wasted taxpayer funds in ridiculous and unnecessary prosecution, Julie Bass will probably benefit most from a Defense attorney who argues first against the city's odd definition of "suitable". Oak Park seems to be hanging onto that idea of 'common': After all, it's probably the prosecutor's only long shot in what could prove a very embarrassing -- and even costly situation for the city that could end up subject to a follow-up lawsuit. It's not an outrageous concept the homeowner may choose to sue, after she's through defending herself in court.
Oak Park resident Julie Bass doesn't believe it's her responsibility, as a homeowner, to provide Kevin Rulkowski "beautiful" things to look at according to what is seemingly his own definition. It would seem Mr Rulkowski was a fan of homeowners' associations before, or during, his employment with the city of Oak Park. Traditionally, cities cannot impose strange legal requirements with such loose definitions -- or even created ones.
It appears things in Oak Park are about to get uglier than Rulkowski's view of Julie Bass' vegetable garden. Julie Bass has plans to demand her right to a jury trial. But, first up, the July 26 pre-trial that's slated in the Bass matter.
The city of Oak Park seems to believe Julie Bass is facing up to 93 days in jail over the turf battle -- with some plans for prosecution.
Oak Park could be facing a lawsuit of its own down the line -- and a whole lot of ridicule. If the Michigan city plans to throw the book at Julie Bass, it better prepare to fall flat on its face or be the laughingstock of the nation -- regardless of how good the Michigan city prosecutor thinks he may be.
Looks like one city, and its prosecutor is about to get an unintended debut on Jay Leno.