Front lawn police in BERKELEY?!!



Rant reader and Berkeley resident Spidra tells us of a neighbor who is being fined hundreds a day for having fruit trees and raised beds (including perennials and vegetables) in his front yard and median.

An image from Asa Dodsworth’s easeway and front garden space is shown at top. Dodsworth is an community activist, gardener, and chicken aficionada who was told by a code enforcement official that the frontyard was supposed to be a lawn. Here are Dodsworth’s violations and the fines:

•Vegetation over six foot tall, a five hundred dollar a day fine, now cited twice in a two week period

•Unpermitted trees, a five hundred dollar a day fine, cited twice

•Unpermitted garden beds, a five hundred dollar a day fine, cited twice

•Two counts of obstruction of the right of way, at five hundred dollar a day each.

•And a we-already-told-you-so citation, a five hundred dollar a day fine

Interestingly, Berkeley is implementing a Climate Action Plan, which aims to reduce greenhouse gases by 80%; part of this is official support of community gardens and localized food growing. Here’s a direct quote from the plan’s recommendations to residents: Grow your own food. Join a community garden or plant a garden in your yard. So it could be there is a disconnect between the activities of officially-supported community gardens and what the individual food grower can do.

Having viewed the slide show, I feel positive that these front and easeway beds would likely run into trouble in Buffalo, and would never be permitted to take shape where a homeowner’s association has any say. I like them though. They look very lush and suitable to the bungalow-type architecture I can see in the photos. And really, can we keep our eyes on the big picture, and stop harassing homeowners about their plantings? As long as it is maintained, I’m fine with it and the city should be too.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. As any rant follower knows I am a big supporter of the “GREAT AMERICAN LAWN”.

    However for a lawn to be mandated is absolutely ludicrous. If this guy is violating a city ordinace for building a raised bed street side ok then take it down…..

    But lawn legislation?


    The TROLL

  2. Why only “maintained”? Why not designed too? Think French potager. Feed the soul & the stomach while increasing property value.

    How many high-end neighborhoods are beautifully “maintained” yet have lower property values due to that aesthetic?

    You know the type. Expansive lawns, foundation plantings, bushes pruned with electric shears into green meatballs, and to top it off, a monthly little sign saying, Chemicals Sprayed.

    Oh yes, “maintained”.

    Sorry, I digressed. Ranted?

    Thanks for your post & the great pic with it.

    FYI, twice I’ve had a man with a gun (police) come to my garden. Both times it was the French lavender, full bloom, spilling over the curb. While neighbors all around had weeds/grass spilling over their curb with no complaint.

    Seems French lavender is quite the menace to society.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  3. I’m appalled at such injustices/stupidity on the part of public officials…however, I can’t help but laugh–ruefully– that this is happening in Berkley of all places.

  4. Tara, I wouldn’t demand that someone “design” their front beds but I totally see what you mean.

    Greg, the thing is that these city regulations never really specifically forbid a front yard garden–usually officials rely on “high weeds” type violations that do not apply. I would almost bet that no city ordinance specifically forbids a raised bed. And it always comes from neighbors who often have some other grudge … I’m just tired of it.

  5. From the slide show, his garden is not for my taste. Eliz, your right, neighbors who just can’t stand it call it in, relentlessly until….
    But, you know, my taste or not, it doesn’t seem to be impinging on the sidewalk or eating passersby, so who cares?
    Some neighbor…

  6. Well, yes, Frank, we all have different ideas of what looks good. And you are also correct that that is not the point here. In one of the links, this guy meticulously lays out what he does to make sure he does not impinge on right of way, pedestrians, cars, etc.

  7. If time is taken to observe and actually write citations for ‘weeds’ I think that is ‘Job Security’ for the enforcers and a sign that real crime is on the downturn. Oh, and it is common knowledge that lavender is a menace to society what with its’ soothing fragrance and spilling habit. Guess I am going to jail…..:)

  8. I always thought America was the ‘land of the free’. It appears that that is not so, it is the land of petty ordinances.

  9. I love Asa Dodworth’s garden. I love how lush and unmaintained it looks. It’s beautiful. The Berkley code enforcer needs to get the stick out of his butt.

  10. Great story. I love that he is going to help others plant fruit trees in their front yards.
    The beds on the parkway might be a problem for work crews so he may have to address that,but otherwise debris from trees can be removed, branches can be trimmed. This should not be a crime enforcable to the extent you could lose your home. Those fines are mounting fast.
    Dodworth has not only my support but my admiration for working to make change in such a possitive manner.

  11. Seattle is changing its laws/codes in order to allow more street-side gardens etc – right now it’s against the law to change the parking strip. A woman near here is incurring these same kinds of fees for building a skateboard park in her yard and using the parking strip (not just a few boards and nails, we’re talking fully architect-ed cement massive thing).

  12. In addition to being inconsistent with the Climate Action Plan, it’s inconsistent enforcement of code violations. I live on one of Berkeley’s major thoroughfares. It’s an old street not built to take so much traffic. Because it’s old, its sidewalks are narrow. There are 2 properties within 4 blocks of me that have hedges that were planted right at the sidewalk and grow halfway over the sidewalk, forcing wheelchair users out into the street. Berkeley is home to the Independent Living Movement so we have many wheelchair users here. Additionally, there is a yard on my block that usually has waist-high weeds and almost nothing but weeds (sow thistle, weed grasses). It also had a car crash into its fence and the fence was bent out of shape such that sharp edges poke well into the sidewalk. Round the corner from me is a liquor store that’s been empty for 2 decades and is a magnet for graffiti & dumping. A couple doors up from me is a historic High Peaked Colonial Revival House that was abandoned and let go to hell by the landlord because he didn’t want to have to deal with the burden of owning a historic property. He wanted to raze it. The house was also a magnet for graffiti. None of these situations were gone after by Code Enforcement either at all or with anywhere near the intensity reserved for a front yard edible landscape. Berkeley is chock full of graffiti, dumping, litter, etc. Things that are actually dangerous to neighbors because of the gang activity and sanitary hazards they attract. But the City can’t be bothered to deal with those. It’s so much easier to hassle a gardener.

  13. To be fair, I know this house and go by it every day on my commute. For one thing, although it is a single family home, it’s basically a boarding house with a bunch of college aged kids living there. Dogs and chickens, including at least one rooster, are often cruising around the street/sidewalk, and there are often piles of debris and material on/at the sidewalk, table and chairs in the median, etc.

    I think the code is ridiculous, and obviously being mis-used, but I think it’s a little disingenuous for the owner of this home to leave out the fact that it’s operated as a co-op / boarding home, and that there are considerable structures often in the median or against the sidewalk.

  14. Fair enough, L. Though we are just talking about the plants.

    I must say, your description made me smile. These kids today.

  15. Berkeley is a backwards hole of social derangement and socialist totalitarianism.

    Why is this supposed to be surprising?

  16. I live in the Chicago area and I had code enforcement on my back a couple of summers ago. It was the new head of the building department that had a beef with parkway gardens and a nasty old neighbor who egged him on. The actual code enforcement officer(s) on a personal level really liked the parkway garden.

    We have a lot of gang activity and tagging too – I reminded them in court of that. I also reminded my precint captain that DH & I always voted but the nasty neighbor never did – he might lose a couple of votes.

    BTW – we struck a compromise with the judge, the garden could stay as long as I kept it around a foot or so.

  17. I know of many Berkeley houses that are landscaped all the way out to the curb with very large plant material. A somewhat famous garden – Marica Donahue’s garden – comes to mind.

    There is clearly more to this story than is being told. It is obviously about more than just the plants. Perhaps the city is using these code enforcements to try and get them in line for other things they might be doing?

  18. The garden shown appears well loved by the owner and interesting to look at to the passerby. But as a multi-decade southern california dweller in a semi-urban old neighborhood, I’m thinking there’s more to the issue. Houses are densely packed here and neighborhoods function well only when consideration and flexibility are exercised among neighbors. We also have old, narrow, uneven sidewalks lifted by roots and thus strollers, bikes, and many walkers use the street. Children walk/bike ride to school here and our city has ordinances on the height of front yard fences, hedges for safety. And they are vitally necessary for adequate visibility for some lots. Violations tend to be overlooked if no persistent threat exists. I’ve had 2 attempted breakins in the past 6 months because my house borders a house with a violating fence covered with a giant trumpet vine – all very pleasing to the eye but also delight to a would-be burglar looking for cover. My neighbors are good people and willing to compromise to keep the neighborhood safe. Who knows what’s really going at this property – fed up neighbors may have just cause.

  19. As a Berkeley resident, I agree with L. and Kerry that there is more going on here than just a code about lawns. For instance, I noticed that the owner has run for City Council in the past, adding a political element to the story. There are hundreds and hundreds of homes in violation of this ordinance, but this is the only house that I have ever heard has been cited.
    Berkeley has a number of largely unenforced ordinances which are occasionally used to target specific members of the community which it believes are acting in bad faith. For instance, there are ordinances against sitting on the ground that are only used against the homeless population. I’m not saying that’s a good or bad thing, just that it’s one of the realities of Berkeley politics. In this instance I don’t know the details of the fight, but I am very certain that there is a history of conflict between the homeowner and the city and that this is a Berkeley local politics thing, rather than a plant thing.

  20. Friend of ours, a gardener herself, used to live in a house abutting that yard. It was very close to her mother’s nursing home, and she spent most days with her mother providing lots of her care.

    She moved out after a couple of burglaries. She had stories that to my ear involved a bit of environmental damage—one of Berkeley’s few daylighted creeks runs there—never mind not being able to sleep nights just for noise.

    I know AD’s daddy: sweet guy, imaginative, smart enough to hire Joe and me once. But the kid’s beyond kid-age, and it’s the neighbors, not just the grouches and not just the cops, who have genuine problems.

    That’s not sustainable, “kids.”

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