This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing authentic news reporting about Minnesota's new immigrants and refugees. MPR News is a partner with Sahan Journal and shares stories between SahanJournal.com and MPRNews.org.
By Joey Peters, Sahan Journal
Quentin Nguyen had big plans for his big front yard — until a letter arrived from City Hall.
He had been posting on social media since February about his idea to turn the roughly half-acre plot into a giant vegetable garden for his mother and sister, who both live in the Falcon Heights house, and nearby neighbors to use. Nguyen said he saw it as an opportunity to build community and educate people about the benefits of growing fresh produce and improving the environment.
“This is a huge front yard,” he said. “It’s all just plain sod. I want to turn it into something more useful.”
Last week, Nguyen got down to work. He had 20 cubic yards of mulch and 40 cubic yards of soil delivered to his home as he worked to rip out the sod.
“Every neighbor saw that,” said Nguyen, 24, who is originally from Vietnam and has lived in Minnesota for two-thirds of his life. Nguyen is famous in the Como Park area of St. Paul for the front yard in his other home, a pollinator garden that features moss instead of grass and has been described as “whimsical” by both MPR News and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
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Nguyen intended to do something similarly unique to the front yard in his Falcon Heights home by creating a space to grow tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, carrots, squash, lettuce, broccoli, beans and herbs. In addition to vegetables, he figured, pollinators would flourish.
Some of his neighbors had other thoughts on the matter. They complained to city officials, and eventually Nguyen’s social media posts about his plans made their way to Sack Thongvanh, Falcon Heights’ city administrator.
The city government in this St. Paul suburb of 5,000 people had just spent more than half a year working on an ordinance to establish guidelines for growing native plants in front yards — which it did after Nguyen approached the city about the issue. The ordinance did not address vegetables.
“Our code doesn’t explicitly say it’s not allowed,” Thongvanh said. “But it’s one of those things where, in terms of drafting our ordinance, we can’t predict everything we’re going to run into.”
City staff recommended that front yard vegetable gardens be barred temporarily while the idea was being studied and opened for public comment in order to help set guidelines, Thongvanh said. During a May 13 meeting, the Falcon Heights City Council unanimously passed this new restriction with minimal debate.
“We found the need to, before it becomes a problem, to nip it in the bud,” Falcon Heights Mayor Randy Gustafson said during the meeting right before the vote.
Two days later, Nguyen received the letter in the mail informing him of the decision—the first time he said he became aware of any impending restriction of his garden. Nguyen said he found it unusual that the letter was addressed specifically to him and not to the generic “homeowner” that often comes with similar letters informing residents of zoning changes. Before then, no city official had reached out to Nguyen about his plan.
The letter, signed by Justin Markon, the city’s community development coordinator, also mentioned “the potential garden planned for the property.”
Nguyen said the letter, and the mayor’s comments, were proof enough to him that the city had singled him out. He said he’s heard from neighbors who grow tomatoes and other edibles on a much smaller scale in their front yards who didn’t receive similar letters.
“This entire ordinance targets me and only me,” he said. “I feel like … I don’t know what to feel, to be honest. I feel like they don’t want to work with me.”
Thongvanh said the temporary ban is necessary because a community garden in a residential area could hypothetically create problems for neighbors.
“You go from a homeowner that had two cars to now, during peak season of growing, you 20, 30, 40 cars going in and out of your neighbor’s property,” he said. “And the next step is the neighbor’s going to call me and say this is becoming a nuisance.”
Guidelines from the city will prevent a scenario like this from happening, Thongvanh said.
Nguyen knew he should have approached the city for guidance before beginning his garden project, Thongvanh said, because he approached the city last year about allowing for native plants in front yards, which led to the city adopting the new guidelines for them. “I expected he knew the process because he came to us about native landscaping in 2019,” Thongvanh said.
A letter from the mayor sent this week to Thongvanh makes a similar argument. But City Council Member Yakasah Wehyee, in an email sent to Nguyen earlier this week, said he regretted that Nguyen felt targeted by the ordinance and that, “in retrospect,” the city could have gone forward with establishing guidelines without an imposing moratorium on residential community gardening.
Nguyen said he assumed vegetables were included in the native plant ordinance and that he doubted any of his neighbors who grow front yard vegetables on a smaller scale asked the city for a permit before doing so. He added that he’s never planned to use his garden to sell vegetables.
Colin Cureton, a friend of Nguyen’s, started an online petition Monday night to allow for front yard vegetable gardens in Falcon Heights which, by Wednesday morning had gathered 4,300 signatures. Cureton said the city’s move felt short-sighted, especially during the time of COVID-19.
“He’s asking not to ban him and everyone else in Falcon Heights from planting a vegetable in their yard during a global pandemic,” Cureton said of Nguyen, “when food insecurity is going up, people are home and they don’t have a lot to do.”
Thongvanh said he expects the city to eventually adopt guidelines allowing front yard vegetable gardens on some scale. He expects them to be in place within the next month and a half to two months.
“We’re encouraging people to provide feedback,” Thongvanh said, “because we do want to hear back from the community.”
Front yard vegetable gardens in Falcon Heights are banned for the next year or until the new guidelines are set. Residents are allowed to grow vegetables in their side and back yards.
In the meantime, Nguyen said he plans to plant native plants, and not vegetables, on his half-acre front lawn. “I will keep going on with my project,” he said. “I will put in plants that will not break the ordinance.”