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Phil Williams
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In August of 2013, I was cited for having weeds in excess of six inches growing throughout my permaculture site. The rule stated that no weeds, grass, or other vegetation is allowed over six inches in height, unless the area is maintained, farmed, and for agricultural use. I was cited again in August of 2014. I appealed. I was granted a hearing in September of 2015. Below is a detailed account of the hearing.

I met with my attorney on my permaculture site forty-five minutes before the hearing. He walked the grounds, asked me a few questions, and we went over the evidence that we had prepared. He reiterated to me that this was, “high stakes.” He didn’t have to tell me, I knew. I knew if we lost, I would not be able to continue with the permaculture site I had devoted the last five years of my life to.

On the way to the hearing, my wife Denise and I picked up two of our neighbors. Mark has the most adjoining property to mine. He’s a good friend and also a permie; a definite plus for the good guys. Upon arrival, we loitered just outside the township building. A few friends and neighbors trickled in. The friends were mostly teachers that taught with Denise, but had also taken their students on field trips to our property. It was comforting to have supportive friends and neighbors, like stacking the stands of a football game with home team fans.

The room was setup with two rows of tables and chairs, with a space down the middle, forming an aisle. In front there was a long table for the board and the township manager. Denise, myself, and my attorney sat in the first row on one side of the room, friends and family sat in the tables behind us in the same row. The township manager, the township solicitor, and a young man sat in the long table facing us. The police officer sat in front in the opposite row, like he was from a different family at a wedding. The officer was built like a linebacker, his arms covered in tattoos. Shortly before seven p.m. two middle-aged gentlemen greeted the officer with smiles and handshakes. I was concerned because I did not know who they were. Were they complaining residents?

The township solicitor told the middle-aged men to take their seats at the long table. At first I was relieved that they weren’t complainers. Then I started to do the math. There were three board members, the township manager, and the solicitor. The township manager and the solicitor would not be voting on my fate. That left the young man and the two middle-aged men that were chummy with the police officer to decide my fate. I could see us losing two to one, before we pleaded our case.

“This is the first time we’ve ever had a hearing disputing The Universal Property Maintenance Code,” the solicitor said.

The police officer presented his case first. He had pictures of my property in August of 2014 and more pictures in September of 2015. We received copies of the pictures. The police officers included pictures of other properties nearby with close cut grass and typical landscapes. The officer described them as, “neat and clean.” I leafed through the photos, and whispered to my attorney that I could explain the pictures.

The police officer went on to testify that in August of 2014 he received a complaint from someone who told him that he should check out my address, that it was filled with weeds. He stated that he met with me, and I said it was a permaculture farm, and that I was getting a lawyer to appeal. In my opinion, his statements about our meeting made it seem like I was dismissive, and simply told him to back off, that it was permaculture. I did tell him that it was a permaculture farm, but I explained and showed him what things were, and why they were long. I talked to him about the mixed polyculture plants growing under my trees, and the clover and alfalfa living mulch. He went on to provide testimony that I was cited, and my property did not improve from one year to the next. He said he didn’t need a ruler to know that the weeds were longer than six inches.

My attorney questioned him about the specific wording of the ordinance. The officer referred to the Universal Property Maintenance Code that had been adopted in 2006 by the township. I had previously provided my attorney with the weed ordinance from the township’s website. I was being cited with the weed ordinance from the Universal Property Maintenance Code, and not the weed ordinance from the township’s website. My attorney asked if they had two weed ordinances. The officer said they did. My head was spinning at this point. Our entire argument was that my property did not fall under the ordinance because it was maintained, farmed, and for agricultural uses. The Universal Property Maintenance Code did not provide that caveat.

My attorney began to present our case by asking me a series of general questions, questions that he already knew the answers to. He asked my name, when we had purchased the property, and what it was used for before we moved in. It was a commercial orchard, then a hayfield. The board asked me for a definition of permaculture.

I said, “Permaculture is a design science that seeks to design and implement self-sustaining and regenerative systems that provide for human, plant, and wildlife needs. Permaculture is guided by three ethics: Care of the earth, Care of people, and Return of surplus.”

The stocky, balding board member on the left asked me where the definition came from. I told him that I made it up. He frowned at me. I then told him that if he googled Permaculture defined that he would find many different definitions and variations of the one I gave, but I felt that the definition was a good one based on my work and study in the field. He asked me if it was defined in Webster’s Dictionary. I told him it was not, although I’ve never looked it up.

My attorney asked me to stand and approach the board. He had the officer’s pictures in hand. The police officer was also standing in front of the board. My attorney asked me questions about each of the officer’s pictures, and I explained the concept of a forest garden, and the purpose of living mulch. Most of the officer’s pictures were from my zone 1 garden, which is weeded heavily. Granted it looks lush and overgrown, but if you know plants, you would recognize most things. The board seemed to be digesting my argument. The police officer pointed to a vine in the picture and asked me what it was. I told him they were grapes. He then pointed to an enormous grass, and asked me what that was. My attorney told me not to answer. I answered anyway, telling him it was an ornamental grass, Miscanthus Sinesis. That satisfied the officer.

My attorney submitted our own color photos in a binder for evidence. I had prepared captions for each photo. The first picture was a polyculture fruit tree guild in front of my fish pond. It was a plum tree, with oregano, comfrey, autumn olive, milkweed, alfalfa, clover, and nanking cherry growing in the understory. I explained to the board the concept of cooperative plant guilds. I flipped the page of the binder and two pictures were revealed. One showed a skid steer dumping clay into the keyway of my future fish pond, the next showed the pond filling in the rain. The stocky member on the left asked me if I had a permit for the pond. I responded that I did. I told the board that I had to provide a drawing and pay $300, and they never even showed up. The township manager said that it wasn’t them.

I said, “I know, it was the County Conservation District.”

I turned the page again, and the next photo showed the pond more mature, with cattails bursting out of the water. I explained to the board that without the water plants, the pond would be overtaken with algae. The next photo was taken from my bathroom window, and showed swales, three ponds, a young food forest, and an older food forest. My attorney asked a few pointed questions about the living mulch under the trees. The board member on the left asked me if there was any grass longer than six inches in height under the trees. I said yes, but it was impractical to mow. The board member said it was difficult for everyone. He then asked if it was a forest or a garden I was growing. They seemed to have an issue with growing a forest.

“Call it what you want, but I do harvest food from it,” I said.

The stocky board member asked me if I ever mow under the trees. I told him that I did a few times when the trees were small to keep the clover from shading them out. I told him that I don’t anymore. He reiterated that there was grass over six inches in height.

I said, “Yes, but if I mow constantly, the only thing that survives is the grass. All the helpful guild plants don’t tolerate frequent close mowing.”

The board member asked if we had any complaints from our direct neighbors. I said no.

“It was just a busy body, then,” he said.

He asked if the people in the audience were neighbors. I said yes. The board then allowed each of my friends and neighbors to speak one by one. I had a lump in my throat as they each detailed in their own way how they loved what we were doing and felt it was a benefit to the community.

After the audience spoke, my attorney flipped another page in the binder and asked me what was depicted. It was my wildflower meadow in full bloom. The board members barely glanced at it.
The member on the left said, “I was on the other side, but he convinced me. I’ve seen enough, I’m ready to vote in favor of Mr. Williams.” The other board members concurred.

Denise and I shook hands with everyone, and thanked our friends and neighbors. Outside, I thanked my attorney. He told me that I did an excellent job.

On the way to the car, my friend Mark grabbed me by the shoulders for a moment, and with a big smiles he said, “You did it. How do you feel?”

“I’m not sure,” I replied.

When Denise and I got home, I felt empty. I knew I should be happy, but I wasn’t. I knew how little power I had. I knew that everything I had worked for could be taken by a single complaint. I’m sure the government officials in the room thought I should be grateful for their understanding. I felt sad that I have to fight for the right to care for people and the earth. I felt sad that the default legally accepted property management is one of dominance, pollution, and exploitation. The silver lining was the people that stood up for me. Denise, my friends and neighbors, that’s the hope I hold on to.

 
Thekla McDaniels
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That is a bitter sweet story Phil, and I am glad you had the support you needed to get the ruling that allowed you to continue.

I am sad, too. Sad for the current culture of dominance pollution and exploitation, and how tenuous is your right to pursue the style of living that not only feels right to you, but is better in a multitude of ways and has present and future beneficial consequences for people and organisms far distant from your plot.

One of the reasons I participate in this forum, and teach what I know to people where ever I can is to establish more credibility for something other than the exploitation- dominance- pollution mentality, which I believe is a travesty against humanity and all the earth. I also believe that the exploitation dominance pollution mentality is based on fear and a desire for control and predictability. I think it is the degree of fear in those who hold to those ideas that makes the ideas so deeply entrenched, and those who adhere to them so ready to go to name calling and hostilities rather than a rational discussion and exploration of the the issue at hand.

I celebrate your small victory. Thanks for the courage of conviction to follow through. And thanks for telling us how it all went down.

Thekla
 
Tyler Ludens
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Phil you are a hero! You have paved the way for anyone in your community to make a food forest, or even nearby communities with similar bylaws! By your own personal work and example you have potentially changed the present and the future of your entire district! That is true power, and you should be proud!
 
Phil Williams
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Thekla McDaniels wrote:That is a bitter sweet story Phil, and I am glad you had the support you needed to get the ruling that allowed you to continue.

I am sad, too. Sad for the current culture of dominance pollution and exploitation, and how tenuous is your right to pursue the style of living that not only feels right to you, but is better in a multitude of ways and has present and future beneficial consequences for people and organisms far distant from your plot.

One of the reasons I participate in this forum, and teach what I know to people where ever I can is to establish more credibility for something other than the exploitation- dominance- pollution mentality, which I believe is a travesty against humanity and all the earth. I also believe that the exploitation dominance pollution mentality is based on fear and a desire for control and predictability. I think it is the degree of fear in those who hold to those ideas that makes the ideas so deeply entrenched, and those who adhere to them so ready to go to name calling and hostilities rather than a rational discussion and exploration of the the issue at hand.

I celebrate your small victory. Thanks for the courage of conviction to follow through. And thanks for telling us how it all went down.

Thekla


Thekla,

Thank you for the kind words. I think you're right about people being afraid and in need of control.

Phil
 
Phil Williams
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Tyler Ludens wrote:Phil you are a hero! You have paved the way for anyone in your community to make a food forest, or even nearby communities with similar bylaws! By your own personal work and example you have potentially changed the present and the future of your entire district! That is true power, and you should be proud!


Tyler,

That's really nice of you to say, but I'm not sure that I accomplished much more than saving my own hide. One of my neighbors told the board that they should embrace permaculture for the entire township. The board was okay with letting me continue but one board member said, "If we let everyone do this, people will let their weeds grow and then say it's permaculture."

I hope that maybe I made a little crack in the foundation here, but I think it's going to take a lot more hammering away to create real change.

Thanks Again,
Phil
 
John Polk
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I hope that maybe I made a little crack in the foundation here, but I think it's going to take a lot more hammering away to create real change.

Each and every one of these victories, regardless how small they may seem, are crucial steps in breaking down the existing paradigm that "If your yard doesn't look exactly like your neighbor's yard, you are in violation."

Too many of these cases are happening around the country. These cases must be fought if we truly wish to be 'free'.

If my neighbor is not assisting me with my mortgage, or property tax bills, what right does he have to dictate what I do or don't grow on my property. Owning a piece of property should grant one the right to reasonable use of the property. I object to huge green lawns that look like an exclusive country club, but I don't tell the owners that their use of the land needs to be changed...it's their land.

 
Phil Williams
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John Polk wrote:
I hope that maybe I made a little crack in the foundation here, but I think it's going to take a lot more hammering away to create real change.

Each and every one of these victories, regardless how small they may seem, are crucial steps in breaking down the existing paradigm that "If your yard doesn't look exactly like your neighbor's yard, you are in violation."

Too many of these cases are happening around the country. These cases must be fought if we truly wish to be 'free'.

If my neighbor is not assisting me with my mortgage, or property tax bills, what right does he have to dictate what I do or don't grow on my property. Owning a piece of property should grant one the right to reasonable use of the property. I object to huge green lawns that look like an exclusive country club, but I don't tell the owners that their use of the land needs to be changed...it's their land.



John,
I agree 100%. Here in my township, we have a single resident that drives around every year inspecting properties for long grass. He then provides the police with a list of the "violators". The police then must act, because they have a complaint. The code enforcement is complaint driven, so the complainer and the police have all the power, whereas the homeowner has none. I imagine this guy loves the power he has to tell his neighbors how to live and tell the police to enforce his wishes. I'd have a lot more respect for the police if they told him to F-off.

Phil
 
Tyler Ludens
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One way people might try to head these sorts of folks off at the pass is to very deliberately make a very nice, very perfect lawn prominently in the front of their property - and by small I mean like eight to ten feet in diameter - and confine their permaculture to very obvious "flower beds" with neat edging.
 
Rose Pinder
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Phil Williams wrote:
Tyler Ludens wrote:Phil you are a hero! You have paved the way for anyone in your community to make a food forest, or even nearby communities with similar bylaws! By your own personal work and example you have potentially changed the present and the future of your entire district! That is true power, and you should be proud!


Tyler,

That's really nice of you to say, but I'm not sure that I accomplished much more than saving my own hide. One of my neighbors told the board that they should embrace permaculture for the entire township. The board was okay with letting me continue but one board member said, "If we let everyone do this, people will let their weeds grow and then say it's permaculture."

I hope that maybe I made a little crack in the foundation here, but I think it's going to take a lot more hammering away to create real change.

Thanks Again,
Phil


I also was thinking you were a hero while I was reading, even before I knew the outcome. Well done. I understand that sense of nothing afterwards, but what you have done is very important in supporting change.

Is the case a matter of public record? Will this then be able to be used by others who end up with complaints made against them?

"If we let everyone do this, people will let their weeds grow and then say it's permaculture."

The easy solution to that is that the authorities need to have expertise in permaculture. Their building consent compliance people can tell the difference between a building that is constructed properly and one that is not, so why can they not learn the skills to assess permaculture?

One thing I am not clear about. Did they find in favour for you against their own rules? Or are their own rules flexible enough to allow a permaculture management system?
 
Thekla McDaniels
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Rose Pinder wrote: Did they find in favour for you against their own rules? Or are their own rules flexible enough to allow a permaculture management system?


Good question Rose. Now I'm curious too.

Thekla
 
Phil Williams
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Rose Pinder wrote:

I also was thinking you were a hero while I was reading, even before I knew the outcome. Well done. I understand that sense of nothing afterwards, but what you have done is very important in supporting change.

Is the case a matter of public record? Will this then be able to be used by others who end up with complaints made against them?

"If we let everyone do this, people will let their weeds grow and then say it's permaculture."

The easy solution to that is that the authorities need to have expertise in permaculture. Their building consent compliance people can tell the difference between a building that is constructed properly and one that is not, so why can they not learn the skills to assess permaculture?

One thing I am not clear about. Did they find in favour for you against their own rules? Or are their own rules flexible enough to allow a permaculture management system?


Rose,

Thank you for the kind words.

I think the case is public record, but it wasn't a court case. It was a township hearing. They audio taped everything. I'm not sure how you would go about acquiring it though.

I'm not sure if others could cite my case or not. The way I understood it was they were allowing my use, but others would have to be looked at on a case by case basis, same as me. My case does make the township aware of permaculture, and maybe less likely to drag someone to a hearing if they are doing something similar. Maybe I paved the way for a bit more tolerance.

I don't like the idea of a government authority deciding what is and what isn't acceptable permaculture. That in my opinion should be the property owner's business. Permaculture is very subjective, and we all have our own special brand of permaculture. I do think it is good for code officers to be aware of permaculture, and to change the perception of beauty and acceptable land use, especially in residential areas.

The found in favor of me within their own rules. They ruled that my entire property is being maintained as a garden, and is therefore allowed to have plants that violate the 6 inch height rule. I don't think they would ever find someone in favor against their rules. Their rules are the supreme law of the land, that we must bow down to. They will allow some wiggle room if they feel a ruling might be unpopular or if you have some people in the township with some common sense.

Phil
 
John Polk
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They ruled that my entire property is being maintained as a garden, and is therefore allowed to have plants...

Along the same lines, many states have "Wildlife refuges, sanctuaries, etc. These are usually designated by state's Dept. of Natural Resources, or Conservation.

Generally, you need to demonstrate that you have made the yard more friendly for the local wildlife. Most of these agencies are so happy that people take part of the program, that they will 'certify' almost any improvement that has a positive impact on the native wildlife. They will issue you a certificate, and a sign to post on your property.

Most city officials would be reluctant to impose a fine on an individual that has been awarded "sanctuary" status by the state !
It can be used as a handy tool to intimidate those officials working at the lower levels of government.
That "Wildlife Preserve" sign on your gate will scare away most low level city regulators.
 
Thekla McDaniels
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Oh boy! That's great information. I think I'll see about becoming a sanctuary!

Once I understand the process, maybe I can guide others through it.

 
Phil Williams
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What an awesome idea! Thanks John.
 
John Polk
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There is a national one at National Wildlife Federation

And here in Washington, we have Washington Dept of Fish & Wildlife

Most states have similar programs.
These often intimidate lower level local officials.


WA Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary.png
[Thumbnail for WA Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary.png]
 
Phil Williams
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John Polk wrote:There is a national one at National Wildlife Federation

And here in Washington, we have Washington Dept of Fish & Wildlife

Most states have similar programs.
These often intimidate lower level local officials.



I wonder if they have any legal power to supercede property maintenance codes. At one point I looked into preserving my land as a farm property, but doing so I was told would not protect me from the codes.
 
Jay Grace
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How about the "Right to Farm Act"?
From what I understand. In a round about way you can not be denied your right to grow food for yourself or to sell.


http://www.motherearthnews.com/homesteading-and-livestock/sustainable-farming/right-to-farm-act-zmgz13aszsto.aspx
 
raven ranson
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So glad the result of the hearing was good. Stressful time. It's not easy.

Phil Williams wrote:
I wonder if they have any legal power to supercede property maintenance codes. At one point I looked into preserving my land as a farm property, but doing so I was told would not protect me from the codes.


Some parts of the world do have this sort of thing. In British Columbia, Canada, we have a little known piece of provincial legislation called the Farm Act, which is designed to protect active farms from nuisance bylaws. So, for example, if/when my neighbours go to the local bylaw officer about our rooster or geese making noise, any complaint they lodge can be nullified (it's pre-coffee, can't think of the proper legal term) by the provincial legislation. It protects us against some of the 'weed' and fence bylaws as well, but on the flip side, being a farm, it seems we are subject to some stricter weed restrictions under the federal laws (once they get the new federal bill about farming and food processing that they are bringing in, sorted out).

We have one neighbour who is very concerned about our property and spends a great deal of time worrying about our land and doesn't mind spending hours calling around to local authorities to find things that we can be cited for - all out of concern for our well being, I'm sure. Even if we didn't have a neighbour like this, we still tend towards caution and do our best to be aware of the laws that apply to us. It's difficult because there are so many layers of government that apply to land use. There is the city, the regional district, the province, the federal government, the police (both local and federal), the health authority, animal control (because we have livestock), water use rights, building codes (local, provincial, federal), and so on and so forth - and EACH of these bodies have separate regulations applying to farms and to residential - because we live on the farm, either or both could be applied to us at the whim of the authorities. So we need to know a little bit about everything.

Educating ourselves has been our first line of defence.

Second line of defence is to have geese and llamas who don't like visitors that haven't been introduced to them by us. These are very intimidating - the geese honk at visitors that try to open the gate, the llamas stand silently behind the geese, line abreast, watching these would be visitors with intense concentration. Each llama weighs about 500 lb and stands over 6 foot tall.

Third line of defence is to be very respectful of authority figures who we interact with. It helps if they feel they have all the power in the situation - often times that's why people go for that kind of job, because they need to feel powerful. We ask them questions. For every one question they ask us, we ask their opinion on two different things. We listen to them, rephrase and reiterate their reply to show that we were listening. I don't know why this works so well, but we've never had any authority follow through with a citation. Usually they leave saying "so sorry to take up your time, there is obviously nothing wrong here."

The fourth line of defence is the legislation itself - we haven't had to use this on the farm, yet, but we have printed copies of the laws that protect us from the other laws. Also, if someone does wish to formalize a complaint, then we make certain we understand which specific bit of legislation we violated. In other fields of life, quite often the authority sent to enforce said law, don't know which law they are specifically citing. We say this very nicely and with due deference, but firmly too. We want to know specifically which law we violated so that we can learn how not to do it again... or so we say. Usually it's a law we are familiar with and we can say (with respect) that actually, this apply to a situation not ours, citing sources and such. Then, maybe somehow the suggestion happens that, since it's not an emergency situation, the authority could double check which specific law it is and let us know before returning to issue the ticket.

Of course, it really helps that said neighbour's only way to interact with authority is to yell and swear at them. I suspect yelling and insulting the person you want to help you isn't the most efficient way to get your own way.

The fifth line of defence is that, knowing the bylaws that apply to us, we also know which bylaws are broken by our neighbour and are obviously visible from our property. We can, if things go far enough, ask the bylaw enforcer... so, if we did like this example on the other side of the property line, would that fit in with the bylaws? Slyly bringing their attention to the things that break the same bylaws on the neighbour's property - the yelly swearing neighbour, who the enforcer is already frustrated with. Of course, we hesitate to do this, as it would escalate our interaction with said neighbour, and really we aren't in a mood for a war.


But getting back to the main topic. This farm act I talk about, I suspect was put in place to protect large scale agricultural ventures, not little people like us. Yet there is this trend towards making legislation that protects industrial farming, but yet applies equally to small scale operations - for once this legislation protects the little people instead of putting us out of business. I wonder if in the US there are any legislations that might be used to protect you in future.
 
elle sagenev
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John Polk wrote:
I hope that maybe I made a little crack in the foundation here, but I think it's going to take a lot more hammering away to create real change.

Each and every one of these victories, regardless how small they may seem, are crucial steps in breaking down the existing paradigm that "If your yard doesn't look exactly like your neighbor's yard, you are in violation."

Too many of these cases are happening around the country. These cases must be fought if we truly wish to be 'free'.

If my neighbor is not assisting me with my mortgage, or property tax bills, what right does he have to dictate what I do or don't grow on my property. Owning a piece of property should grant one the right to reasonable use of the property. I object to huge green lawns that look like an exclusive country club, but I don't tell the owners that their use of the land needs to be changed...it's their land.



Actually what your neighbor does affects your property value greatly. Thus what your neighbors do is a concern. I'm sure the electronics recycling plant that moved onto our section thought I should mind my own business about how they handled their business. I thought differently what with all the impacts they would have upon me and mine.
 
Jeff Reiland
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Jay Grace wrote:How about the "Right to Farm Act"?
From what I understand. In a round about way you can not be denied your right to grow food for yourself or to sell.


http://www.motherearthnews.com/homesteading-and-livestock/sustainable-farming/right-to-farm-act-zmgz13aszsto.aspx


Thanks Jay! I wonder if this could be stretched to include a backyard plant nursery? Looking into it right now...
 
Phil Williams
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Jay Grace wrote:How about the "Right to Farm Act"?
From what I understand. In a round about way you can not be denied your right to grow food for yourself or to sell.


http://www.motherearthnews.com/homesteading-and-livestock/sustainable-farming/right-to-farm-act-zmgz13aszsto.aspx


Jay,

This might be a good option as well. In PA, you must have at least 10 contiguous acres or over 10K in farm income to qualify. I would be interested to know if anyone with residential land ever challenged local zoning with The Right to Farm Act.

Thanks
Phil
 
Phil Williams
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R. Ranson,

Thanks for your detailed account of your farm. I guess complainers are everywhere. It seems to me that a complaint should only hold merit if you can prove damages. Otherwise they can go pound sand. Good luck with the farm. It seems like you are dealing with the issue as proactively as you can.

Phil
 
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