The Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission voted 6-4 during a meeting on Wednesday afternoon to request the organizers of a community garden in North Oakland to obtain a $2,900 Conditional Use Permit from the city’s Planning Commission in order to continue their operation.
Earlier this year, the Oakland-based non-profit Phat Beets Produce, together with their program partner Neighbors of Dover Street Park (NDP), planted vegetables and some 30 fruit trees along the perimeter of the city-owned Dover Street Park, where they hope to educate the community about gardening and nutrition. The produce coming out of the garden, said Max Cadji, an organizer of Phat Beets Produce, will be given away to park users as well as patients of the Healthy Hearts Clinic at Children’s Hospital Oakland, another partner of the program.
Dozens of garden supporters packed the meeting room in Lake Side Park on Wednesday and more than 400 signatures in favor of the program have been presented to the commission.
Among a dozen supporting speakers during the meeting, Jenifer Matthews, a pediatrician at the clinic, testified to the commission that fresh vegetables and fruits are essential to treat diet-related diseases. “For most of us we can just turn off the TV and go to Berkeley Bowl; but for my patients this is not the reality,” she said, adding that many children from low income neighborhoods have no access to fresh food.
Zackary Matthews, a co-organizer of Phat Beets who also spoke in favor of the program, said the group obtained verbal and email permission from the Office of Parks and Recreation (OPR) as well as the Public Works Agency (PWA) to utilize the otherwise deserted space around the park. Public Works even installed additional irrigation systems for the new plants, Matthews said.
However, while the organizers were moving forward as initially planned, they were informed in late April that in order to continue they have to seek further approval from the advisory commission. In addition, according to a report submitted to the commission by Sara Herbelin, the community gardening supervisor with OPR, several concerns were raised by OPR staff regarding the fruit trees the group had planted, including pesticide hazards and blockage of sight lines into the park.
“Unfortunately we were not given the opportunity to review the report before it was submitted,” said Zackary Matthews, who passed out a sheet to the commission during the meeting which addresses each of the concerns. For example, according to the sheet, non-spray techniques are available to treat tree diseases, making it safe for nearby children, and trees will be pruned to maintain a clear line of sight into the park.
Despite the proposed solutions, the majority of the commission insisted that the garden program can not be approved without following a certain process. “Every city park in Oakland allows community gardening with a Conditional Use Permit,” said Commissioner Barry Miller to the crowd. “Because we have submissions every month saying that ‘We want a dog park, we want a fountain, we want a soccer field’—our job is to balance all that. That’s why there’s a process. ”
“We understand that there needs to be a process and we’re more than willing to try to follow that process,” said Zackary Matthews, who had hoped that the requirement for a permit could be waived. “We’re not asking the city for any money, ” he said. “We’ve done serious improvements to the park.” Matthews said the garden project is being undertaken through volunteering and their own fundraising. With their partner, Neighbors of Dover Street Park , he added, they’ve been weeding and maintaining the garden, saving the city a lot of money.
“Please don’t characterize us as being anti-gardening or anti-community involvement taking care of the park,” said Miller. “But there’s a process to follow and all voices should be heard. It seems we are moving to that direction.”
But $2,900 is quite a burden for a non-profit like Phat Beets Produce, said Zackary Matthews. “If that’s the hoop we need to jump through, we’ll find the money,” he said.