In January, a bill was introduced in the Vermont House that would prohibit a condominium or homeowner association from unreasonably restricting the right to garden.
Essex Jct. resident Carol Bennett was the driving force behind the bill.
In July 2016, landscaping contractors showed up at Bennett’s townhome on Cushing Drive and dug up a section of her garden deemed excessive by her HOA.
“I was hurt and very angry,” she said recalling the day of the event. “I was in tears.”
At that point, Bennett had already been sparring with her HOA for a year and a half after she and about 10 other residents were sent notices mandating they scale back their gardens.
After the initial complaint, Bennett said she removed some of the plants in her front yard and pulled in the garden’s perimeter, but left the back and sides alone.
She also requested more information from her HOA as to what state they wanted the garden returned to. Bennett had been adding to her garden for a number of years and had also inherited plants from the previous owners.
She never heard back, she said.
“I got an email from property management saying they were going to come remove
everything and they’re going to send me the bill,” she said. “And they did.”
The contractors removed her grapevine, rose and spiraea bushes, delphiniums and columbines, tomato and zucchini plants, her carrots and herbs, along with plants the previous owner put in.
She was told if she didn’t pay the bill, there would be a lien on her property when she tried to sell it, she said.
“I was the only one they did this to,” she said, noting other property owners with gardens much more significant than hers were left alone by the HOA.
“It was selective enforcement at the time,” she said.
Bennett hired an attorney to try to secure a small compensation for the plants that were removed that she had not planted, and an apology for what she called unequal treatment.
She was ultimately dissuaded by the financial cost of the case.
Whitcomb Heights HOA president Ron Systo didn’t respond to requests for comment before The Reporter’s deadline.That summer, Bennett petitioned other homeowners in the HOA, collecting 95 signatures for what she called the “right to garden.”
A couple months later in September, she sat down with then-Essex Rep. Paul Dame at an ice cream social and gathered neighbors who supported changing the law to require more consistency from the HOA with regard to gardening.
While researching, Bennett said she found a personal agriculture bill passed in California in 2014 that she wanted to use as a springboard for Vermont.
Her state representatives got on board, and in January, Rep. Linda Myers presented the bill to the House. It was taken up by the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs and was still in committee as of earlier this week.
The bill looks to put it on the books that a unit’s owner has the right to cultivate plants for personal use “in the immediate vicinity of his or her unit.”
Rep. Myers said the bill didn’t garner too much attention from other legislators or questions from the committee when it was introduced. She described the bill’s chances of passing and going into effect as “slim and none.”
“If the bill hasn’t come out of committee this Friday, then it can’t move,” she said.
Myers did say she feels homeowners should have “a little more leeway” when it comes to gardening around their home.
Bennett also joined her HOA board in December 2017 and has been working to implement a new rule amendment allowing all homeowners a 3-by-10 foot space in which to garden.
But she said unless a bill is passed in the statehouse, the next generation of board members could change the rules back again.
Bennett bought her property with her then-husband in 2008. In 2013, after her divorce, her therapist suggested gardening as a way to help with the breakup.
“I had lived here prior for six years,” she said. “I never knew anybody, and then I’m outside in the garden and I met all these people. It became this wonderful community.”
She said gardening is not just about producing her own food and getting outdoors, but the education and camaraderie.
“It’s healthy all the way around,” she said.