Women fight city hall, score win for green thumbs

Owner of greenhouse takes fight against citation all the way to Vancouver City Council

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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photoKati Elliott helped friend Omni Grover Omni Grover, who received a citation for her greenhouse because it's not in a backyard, take the case to the Vancouver City Council. The women scored a victory.

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In 2012, Vancouver’s four code compliance officers followed up on 5,459 complaints, many of which were resolved without having to open an official case, said Chad Eiken, director of community and economic development. Of 1,041 cases, 964 were solved by the end of the year. The most common complaints involve: weeds, grass, vegetation; garbage; work without permits; open storage; and vehicles.

Upon receiving notice that a greenhouse her husband assembled in their Vancouver yard was in violation of city code, Omni Grover was reluctant to question it.

Was she upset a neighbor complained? Yes. Was she in disbelief the city would dictate where to put a structure that measures 6 by 8 feet? Yes.

Did she think she could fight City Hall?

As the saying goes, no.

But encouraged by her best friend of 11 years, Kati Elliott — who promised to do the talking when they pleaded the case to the city council — Grover challenged the violation this month and won.

Her win may help other city residents who want a hobby greenhouse on their urban lots but don't have space, or adequate sun, in their backyards.

Chad Eiken, the city's director of community and economic development, said he'll suggest to the city's planning commission this fall that the code regarding greenhouses be clarified and perhaps not include all of the conditions put on other "accessory structures" such as sheds, pool houses, workshops and detached garages.

Specifically, the city could modify the requirement that a greenhouse be behind the home.

"We wouldn't want a 20 by 30 foot greenhouse in a front yard," Eiken said. "But if it's a small greenhouse, maybe it's no big deal."

Grover and Elliott were "super nervous" to address the city council, but were pleased by the warm reaction from the councilors, who marveled at photographs of Grover's tidy yard, which in addition to the greenhouse has seven raised garden beds.

"They were excited about the sustainability," Elliott said.

The interaction with the council helped spur the pair, who are passionate about growing organic produce, into starting a Facebook page, "Clark County Urban Farming," through which they hope to meet like-minded people.

Charles Brun, horticulture adviser at Washington State University Clark County Extension, said Wednesday that if the city relaxes its rules about hobby greenhouses, it would benefit gardeners who want to have one but don't have the space in a backyard. He suspects there will still be some guidelines, such as the greenhouse has to be well-maintained and a minimum distance from property lines. WSU's Master Gardener program trains 40 to 50 volunteers every fall, who then are available to answer questions for gardeners.

Greenhouses, which work particularly well for vegetable starts and bedding plants, "are part of the home gardening experience," Brun said.

'Almost addicting'

Grover and her husband Brett, an aircraft maintenance and structural technician, moved into the home a year ago with their two sons. Grover said the home belongs to her grandmother, who had to move to an assisted-living facility. She and Brett are taking care of the home, which sits on an 8,000-square-foot corner lot in the Father Blanchet Park neighborhood in the Heights.

She said her grandmother loved working in her yard, pointing to the beautiful hydrangeas near the front door. On the other side of the house, there are three apple trees, two cherry trees, a plum and a pear, plus blueberry and raspberry plants.

Grover wanted to add to that bounty. With help from Elliott, she started with a raised bed for vegetables. And then another. They watched YouTube videos and asked questions of employees at Shorty's Garden & Home.

"After putting up a few beds, it's almost addicting," Grover said.

She's concerned about genetically modified foods and wants the best for her family. She's growing quinoa, zucchini, okra, leeks, artichokes, peas, broccoli, collard, squash, red onions, strawberries, potatoes, cilantro, garlic, spinach and kale, among other things. Putting spinach in smoothies for her sons Kylan, 6, and Emmitt, 1, is a great way to sneak vegetables, she said, and the boys love picking and eating berries.

Her husband bought the greenhouse kit from Harbor Freight and they erected it in the spot where it would get the most sun to grow heirloom tomatoes and jalapeno peppers. They have a very small backyard, and it's fenced for their golden retriever. The area with the fruit trees doesn't receive as much sun. It's also where she keeps a chicken coop "tractor" that houses six hens, which she moves frequently.

'Cloud nine'

The letter from the city's code compliance division wasn't a total surprise. She'd heard from a neighbor across the street who was upset about the greenhouse, and she'd seen a city employee taking photographs of her yard.

In addition to the greenhouse, she was also cited for having a pile of dirt. She'd ordered one cubic yard from City Bark and hadn't finished shoveling it into the raised beds.

"Please be advised that noncompliance or reoccurring violations may result in further enforcement action to include monetary penalties," the June 4 letter read.

After talking with her family and Elliott, Grover decided to contact the code compliance officer, Enrique Dominguez. After an unproductive phone call, she and Elliott went to City Hall on June 10 to meet with Dominguez, who suggested they attend the next Vancouver City Council citizen forum.

They asked when the next forum was, and he said it was that evening.

Having never attended a meeting, they arrived and sat down in the front row, wondering when everyone else would show up.

"I was surprised it was so empty," Grover said.

"I thought there would be way more people there," Elliott said.

They waited for the council to finish with the consent agenda.

"OK, we'll move into citizen forum, ladies and gentlemen," said Mayor Tim Leavitt. "Twice a month, we open it up for folks to speak to us about anything that's on their mind."

Four people were there to talk about either the Columbia River Crossing — a bistate project which the Vancouver City Council does not control — or C-Tran, which has its own board. Four others wanted the council to write a resolution opposing corporate personhood, an issue councilors have tried making clear falls outside their jurisdiction.

Elliott, 26, and Grover, 27, were called on second. They brought photographs for the councilors.

"We are told (the greenhouse) is too close to the front of the home and needs to be farther back," Elliott explained. "We would like to address this code, as greenhouses have become more popular."

Councilor Jeanne Harris spoke first.

"I really appreciate you coming down to talk to us about this," Harris said. "This is an interesting question, because a lot of people have smaller yards and may want to have a greenhouse."

And the city encourages growing local, she added.

"I just want to know where the chicken coop is," Harris said.

"It's in the back," Grover said, prompting laughter.

Councilor Jack Burkman explained that code is written with the best intentions, and compliance officers interpret it with the best intentions, but sometimes the code doesn't make sense and needs to be changed.

Councilor Larry Smith wanted to know who complained about the greenhouse, as code enforcement is complaint-driven.

A neighbor, he was told.

Councilor Jeanne Stewart and Leavitt praised the well-landscaped yard.

"My yard should look like this," Stewart said.

Councilor Bart Hansen thanked them for coming.

"You're a breath of fresh air," he said. "This is your city government being responsive to you." He asked Grover if she has rain barrels (yes) and composts (yes).

That's a great example of environmentally friendly living, Hansen said.

"We were on cloud nine after that," Grover recalled.

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.