Update: Sean Law’s Fight to Keep His Food Forest… and His Home

sean law front yard food forest
Sean Law’s front yard

Originally, I’d planned just to update the post I wrote on Wednesday when I got the decision of the Longwood, Florida city council about Sean Law’s accrued fines levied over his budding permaculture food forest. But there’s plenty to share – enough to warrant a separate post. First, the decision: as expected, the city council upheld the fines against Sean – here’s the report by Orlando’s WESH on the decision:

As one commenter at WESH’s web site noted, this report doesn’t exactly show Sean’s yard from the most flattering light. No, that’s not their job, but the images they chose do seem to support the notion that he’s just letting his yard grow wild (though, in fairness, they do allow him to explain the long-term plan for his yard). Sean has posted a video on his Facebook page explaining the organization of his “foodscaping” project – it’s definitely worth a few minutes to understand the choices he’s made, and the permacultural principles underlying them:

Sure, this video (and the photo I chose to post at the top) show Sean’s food forest in a more flattering light… but, ultimately, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And that’s what’s at stake here in terms of the city’s position: one aesthetic vision over another. No matter what people claim about property values, the fact remains that the city of Longwood has chosen to endorse a particular aesthetic. Sure, those rules were in place when Sean bought his house (as many have pointed out), but is it the place of a government, at any level, to make aesthetic choices for its constituents? And I don’t necessarily buy arguments about rats and fire ants: while heavy mulching can provide nesting space for ants, so can patio slabs… and as someone who spent his early years in Florida, I know these invasive creatures are all over the place. Rats could be an issue with the taller plants, but, of course, any covered spot could provide nesting space for them: wood or lumber piles, outdoor appliances & furniture, and holes under buildings can also serve this purpose.

Sean has made choices about his yard/landscaping that tread lighter on the Earth… and, in the process, demonstrated the costs created by “traditional” lawns and garden spaces. As long as he’s not infringing on the rights of his neighbors, I have a hard time understanding the city’s position. Yes, he probably should have discussed these choices with his neighbors ahead of time – he might have even created some converts – but that’s not an error that deserves over $130K in fines or loss of his house.

Of course, I’m interested in your thoughts – please share them with us in the comments.

Top image courtesy of TheAdamMorrison at reddit

  1. Scott Cooney

    Thoughts? The only thought I have is how messed up that is. One man offers a solution to myriad global problems right in the place he can control…his own property…and as a society we knock him down for it. It’s nuts.

  2. Marjorie

    It is considered by many that billboards, long strips of pavement, and fast food joints infringe on our aesthetic rights! No choice but to see them – everywhere. This man has created a sanctuary in his private home to counter the harsh environment elsewhere. America… I love our freedom. I hope justice is won for this yard.

  3. Philip Kienholz

    Permaculturists need to consider “invisible structures,” such as legal restrictions, and the social culture of urban neighborhoods. There are ways to work within these constrains that don’t meet with the opposition this man has encountered. Education, neighborly relations, developing gradually say with the backyard first, and a front yard that recognizes and respects the general local agreement on front yards, sounding out government constraints and meeting with the enforcement people beforehand to get a feeling for what their interests are.

    These would be better ways than getting crushed by $180,000 of fines! Apart from staking your ecological morality into the ground as if it were a coup stick and defying anyone to contradict it, there are better ways, no matter how wholesome the intent. His would not be the first efforts to be wiped out because of the surrounding ethic. See also the Rhizome Collective, and their 2009 difficulties in Austin, Texas, that followed from ignoring the prevailing ethic and governance. Eventually they will be imposed on you.

    If you want to spread permaculture and forest gardening in a working class neighborhood, recognize that you are likely to upset the common standard, go around and speak to the neighbors before you begin, look at the urban plans for the area, try to identify the opinion shapers who would lead by example, explain the value of what you intend to do, demonstrate the value as soon as you can, keep the steps gradual, unobjectionable, and with clear positive results. Noone wants to think the value of their home is being diminished.

    Sadly, to ignore invisible structures is what is called a “Type One Error,” it must be lived with, cannot be corrected, and will influence all further decision-making. Maybe Sean Law can pull this one back from the brink through negotiations and friendly relations, but maybe not. His video shows him as an articulate person. All the best of luck to him!

  4. Blair

    It’s a tough call for me. Sean has some innovative ideas and I support him in the fact that it’s his property, and if it isn’t attracting pest and critters, I don’t see why he shouldn’t be allowed to grow and harvest food safely. Of course, I don’t live in his neighborhood and have daily sight of his yard. Ultimately, the city will have the last word Thanks and please keep us updated. I’d love to see it work out for everyone.

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