Woodchip Gate: Injustice for an Urban Farmer in Toledo, OH
May 1, 2017 | Trish Popovitch
Nefarious woodchips? Criminalized soil remediation? According to the supporters of urban grower Thomas Jackson of Toledo, OH, the level of police and city council harassment leveled against a local urban grower for having woodchips in his compost on his residential lots went far beyond outdated zoning laws and stepped things up to arrest warrants and legal pressure. All Jackson wanted to do was grow some organic produce in clean soil.
Master Gardener and multi-certified composter Thomas Jackson owns several empty urban lots in downtown Toledo. December of 2015 a complaint was filed against Jackson claiming his odorous compost was attracting vermin and in violation of residential zoning laws. A few years ago, Jackson began breaking down woodchips on the site to create a composted mulch. He wanted a contaminant free bed for his organic vegetable gardens, planning to sell his produce to area restaurants. Yet despite neighborhood support for a radius of five blocks around the site, officials insisted the neighbors were not happy with the state of the lots.
A Failure to Abate a Nuisance order was issued when Jackson refused to move the compost. Jackson denied the issues of the abatement order. Jackson tried explaining that he was breaking down woodchips to create organic soil in the city. The city didn’t want to hear it. So the people made sure they were heard.
A ‘Justice for Thomas’ campaign hit social media. “He’s bringing improvement to the neighborhood, most definitely. It’s excellent for the neighborhood. I don’t know what the problem is,” says Tony Ellison of Macomber Market on the Justice for Thomas page. The Market is across from Jackson’s contested Aubum Street property and just one example of many supportive posts for the beleaguered grower. Yet despite online postings, protests, petitions and letters of support, the vehement campaign to rid the land of compost piles continued. Jackson affirmed his stance that he was simply making good clean soil. But then he missed a court date and a bench warrant was issued.
According to earlier posts on Justice for Thomas, the day the warrant came due police in an unmarked vehicle along with squad cars came to Jackson’s home, despite the fact that Judge Michelle Wagner had dismissed the bench warrants against Mr. Jackson. It was made apparent that the warrants were lifted and the police left.
Jackson’s supporters as well as at least one article in The Toledo Blade, implied that one of Jackson’s original complainants is related to a member of the city council and this is the cause of the continued “harassment” and perhaps even the reason as suggested by Sean Nestor of the Lucas County Green Party, why the issue went before the municipal courts instead of being dealt with by Toledo’s Community Relations Board. According to Jackson there have been nine actual complaints about the compost, two of which come from people with ties to city government. At the end of March, Judge McConnell, the judge in the case, put out an order that all woodchips were to be removed from Jackson’s property by April 16. According to Jackson, city officials just want Jackson to be a good neighbor. “There are nine people in this neighborhood who don’t like it and 150 who signed with their signature saying we loved it but the city is going to side with the nine. That didn’t make sense to me at all,” says Jackson.
Well landscaped lots with no signs of garbage or infestation were available for public viewing online as Jackson tried to illustrate the absurdity of the continued harassment. Jackson reports that County officials came and conducted soil testing on his properties in early April and found not woodchips for the most part, but rich organic soil. Despite expecting the city inspectors on April 16, as of publication the city has yet to show.
Jackson met the court order in time, covering any uncomposted piles with purchased compost and adding additional trees to his property to help screen his valuable work from the street. For Jackson, the negativity has cost him thousands of dollars in municipal landscaping contracts, not to mention legal fees. Despite it all, and with a massive dose of faith, support from neighbors (well, most of them) and the sustainable agriculture community, Jackson is inspired to keep fighting the good fight. He has no intention of stopping his urban farm plans and states the entire affair just “makes me want to do it more.”
“This is my property,” says Jackson. “I’m just trying to beautify my neighborhood I have tried for five years consistently to beautify […] that’s where the trees come from, to develop my neighborhood, that’s where the gardens come in and to growing food that’s going to change the eating habits of my neighbors and to acquire wealth from it.”
Jackson will join other concerned locals later this week to finalize a proposed urban agriculture ordinance for Toledo before presenting it to the city’s planning department.
Without the ordinance, any farmer attempting to grow in the city of Toledo could face their very own Woodchip Gate. Jackson’s case only highlights the need for city planners to recognize that the economy has shifted and the dialog surrounding American food has new voices. Helping people like Thomas Jackson revitalize their neighborhoods through urban farming programs that benefit underserved communities is not a “nuisance.” Indeed, in the modern urban American economy, it is a necessity.