Local Commentary

A Penny for Your Thoughts: News of Greater Falls Church

There is nothing like a slice of fresh, home-grown tomato on a cook-out burger, or freshly picked herbs on a garden salad. During World War II, “Victory Gardens” were popular, something you could do at home to support the war effort while our soldiers and sailors fought far away. As communities urbanized, and more women entered the workforce, the family garden was replaced by expanded produce sections in supermarkets. But the idea of working the soil, getting close to nature, and growing your own food, continued to fascinate homeowners. The popularity of Farmers Markets further verified the desire for fresh produce, grown closer to home.

Gardening is a popular hobby in this country but, until last week, establishing a community garden in a vacant lot, or creating a personal vegetable garden in your front yard was deemed a violation of the county’s Zoning Ordinance. Funny thing is, planting flowers in the front yard always has been permitted. Some homeowners convert their lawns (turf grass is reported to be Fairfax County’s largest “crop”) into meadow-like landscapes, with riotous colors of wildflowers changing constantly across the seasons. Ornamental onions, like allium, and peppers are prized in the flower garden, but growing leeks and bell peppers are not??

The Zoning Ordinance Amendment adopted by the Board of Supervisors last week addresses gardening as an accessory use. On lots of less than 36,000 square feet (about ¾ acre), gardening (not to be confused with landscaping) was allowed only in the side or back yard. However, many residential lots, like those in leafy Mason District neighborhoods, have sufficient sunlight and growing space only in the front yard. Under the new regulations, gardening would be permitted in the front yard, no closer than 15 feet from the front lot line, and limited to no more than 100 square feet in area. Composting in the front yard would not be permitted on lots of less than 36,000 square feet.

Testimony during the public hearing was mixed, similar to the comments my office received about the proposal. An enthusiastic young father was accompanied by his seven-year-old son, who admitted he would rather eat a fresh salad than a cupcake, and proceeded to do so! Another speaker provided photos of a yard where hundreds of cinder blocks, some painted green, were installed, supposedly to outline a garden, but nothing was planted. That arrangement exceeded the 100 square foot limit, and staff agreed to review the site for a possible violation. All the testimony seemed to verify that gardening takes a consistency of effort to maintain the garden, during both the growing season and dormancy. The Board approved the amendment with an 18-month trial period, so that any complaints could be monitored and reviewed.

The Board also approved new regulations for community gardens, requests for which started the entire review of the Ordinance. Gardening is defined as an accessory use, and since a vacant lot has no main use or structure, it cannot have an accessory use. That’s a waste of usable space, and the amendment establishes standards for community gardens that govern hours of operation, location and size of accessory structures (trellises, sheds, etc), parking ingress and egress, and ensuring that no erosive conditions are created.

Farmers Markets are expanded to year-round operation under the newly adopted amendment, but also limiting the items for sale to farm products or value-added farm products, like pickles, salsa, baked goods, candles, and hemp products. A permit for farmers markets, to include mobile markets, still will be required.

The new amendments will provide easier access to fresh, healthy food in all areas of the county, while ensuring that the uses established will be “good neighbors.” The next 18 months will be crucial to that determination.