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Plotting a fee increase at community gardens

The cost to rent a space from the city parks department is rising from $25 to $120 because of budget cuts. That may weed out some of the gardeners growing fruits, vegetables and flowers in city soil.

November 21, 2010|By Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times

Robert Hemedes is happiest when he is in the dirt, tending to the three community garden plots he rents each year from the city. On his little slice of land at the Sepulveda Garden Center in Encino, Hemedes grows roses, aloe and geraniums.

"I can't afford a house. I don't have a garden," he said on a recent morning. "So I have a plot here."

For as long as Hemedes, 39, and anyone can remember, the cost per plot has been $25 a year. But the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks plans to raise that fee to $120 in January.

Parks officials say city budget cuts have made the changes unavoidable. This year the City Council ordered the parks department, along with the city's libraries, to start paying for their utilities, fees that had been covered by the city's general fund. That means the parks department must now pay a $16-million water and electricity bill, according to Regina Adams, the executive officer at the parks department.

"We basically have no choice," Adams said of the fee increase. She said the $120 fee is "nominal," and still does not cover the amount the city spends to keep the gardens open.

But Hemedes says the increase is too much at once, without enough warning.

"We know the city is suffering, but this kind of defeats the purpose of the community garden, which is supposed to be affordable and educational," said Hemedes, who hopes to keep renting despite the new fees. "I have three plots, which will now cost $360 a year. That's a big increase. That's my Christmas budget right there."

Gardeners are not known for their rebellions, but at the Sepulveda Garden Center, there's a mounting air of mutiny.

With a tidy grid of some 800 plots, the Sepulveda center is the largest of the city's nine community gardens. It's mere feet from the roaring 101 Freeway, but there's a tranquility to the place.

"It's my Zen," said Mark Williams, 60, who has gardened there for five years. "Maybe you go to church or Mass and you feel at peace there, I like to garden and to weed.... That's my religion."

Williams said the parks department still has not officially notified the community gardeners of the fee increase. He and others have tried to get the word out by sticking fliers on the fences of each plot.

Community gardens, they say, do more than just provide fruits, flowers and vegetables for the people who grow them. They also help the environment and give the many senior-citizen gardeners a healthy way to socialize.

"We spend our time trying to grow veggies and be health conscious and now they're taking it away," said Lizette Fiedler, who was standing in the shade, taking a break with a fellow gardener.

"You know, organic is very expensive," she said, leaning on a rake. "I can't really afford it in the stores, but I'm willing to come here and put in the work for it."

As is often the case when small communities feel besieged, conspiracy theories have cropped up. Fiedler speculates that the fee hikes are a way to drive out the gardeners so that the city can sell the land to developers.

"In a few years are there going to be condos here?" she asked.

City officials say that won't happen.

The parks department's manager and budget analyst first recommended "modest" fee hikes at various facilities in July. Most of their recommendations called for increases of 20% to 50%. Many were for playing fields and other facilities used by groups and were to be imposed on a one-time basis.

The rent for garden plots is to increase nearly 400%.

In response to the outcry, the department has organized a community meeting at which gardeners can air their complaints. The meeting will be Tuesday at 6 p.m. at the Sepulveda Garden Center but will be open to all those who rent plots at any of the city's gardens, including those in Hollywood, West Hills and Elysian Park.

Fay Denzler, 72, plans to be there. She says she understands the rate hikes.

"It's long overdue," Denzler said. "I've been out here for 10 years and they've never raised the rates."

Denzler, who grows lettuce, broccoli and kale on her three orderly plots, says she will pay the increased fees. But she also says she knows they will "drive a lot of people out who just can't afford it." She hopes it doesn't change the character of the place, where on warm summer evenings some families spread out blankets and make picnics of fresh-picked fruits and veggies.

As for Fiedler, she isn't sure whether she'll be able to continue gardening.

"Now," she said, "every tomato is going to come at a premium."

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