Despite denial, Irregardless Cafe owners still plan garden

ccampbell@newsobserver.comMarch 17, 2013 

— Despite a setback from the Raleigh Board of Adjustment, the owners of the Irregardless Cafe are moving ahead with plans for a produce garden that will eventually feed their customers.

Several members of the board voiced support for the project on Athens Drive, but they ultimately voted to deny a variance last week because current regulations don’t allow large-scale gardening in a residential neighborhood. Residential gardens can’t produce a for-profit harvest, and the board doesn’t have the power to change the code.

“It by all accounts sounds like a wonderful project and something that should be considered by the city … but this use is simply not one that the code allows for,” said board Chairman Charles Coble.

Irregardless owners Arthur and Anya Gordon are planning the Well Fed Community Garden across from Athens Drive High School. An agriculture student who attends Central Carolina Community College lives in the house and grows produce, which would provide fresher food for the restaurant. Volunteers could help out, learn growing techniques and take home a share of the harvest.

Raleigh’s new development code will encourage such community gardens. But although the City Council has approved the Unified Development Ordinance, it doesn’t take effect until September.

“They’re going to have to wait,” Planning Director Mitchell Silver said. “There’s just no way when you have a new code that you can turn the switch the next day.”

City staff members will start training soon on the 300-page code. That hasn’t happened yet, and the Gordons say they’ve gotten mixed responses on whether their garden will get a green light in September.

At Monday’s meeting, a city planner said community gardens must grow produce for those tending the plots to eat. But Silver said Wednesday that community gardeners are allowed to sell their harvest, although most will be banned from having on-site produce stands.

The community garden rules would also permit greenhouses, which currently aren’t allowed in residential front yards. The Gordons already built a greenhouse, but they plan to turn it into a solarium by adding a doorway to the main house.

For now, garden manager Jenn Sandford Johnson will grow produce for her own family and supply Irregardless once the community garden permit is approved in September.

Agriculture students from N.C. State University will landscape the front yard, now bare dirt, into a mazelike “keyhole garden.”

“From the street, it does not look like rows of fields,” Anya Gordon said. “It’s more like an English garden.”

While the Gordons are disappointed they lost the variance request, they said they’re eager to blaze the trail for other community gardens.

“This is really a long-term commitment to this neighborhood to introduce what good sustainable farming practices could look like,” Arthur Gordon said.

He thinks the city should establish a primary contact for community gardens to avoid confusion about the rules and Raleigh residents should voice support for urban agriculture to elected leaders. “It’s time to let your city officials know how you stand,” he said.

Campbell: 919-829-4802

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