Vegetable grower in a pickle with City of Watson

WATSON -- Aziz Ansari has found himself in a real pickle with the City of Watson and it's all over growing tomatoes, peppers and yes, cucumbers for pickles.

WATSON -- Aziz Ansari has found himself in a real pickle with the City of Watson and it's all over growing tomatoes, peppers and yes, cucumbers for pickles.

He started his vegetable growing operation "Rainbow Gardens'' on his residential lot in the Chippewa County community of just over 200 people last year.

According to Ansari, it all grew from 240 tomato seeds he planted in his home. Unwilling to snub any of the newly-germinated seeds, he found plans on the Internet for a low-cost way to raise them. He built a 96-foot long, 6-foot wide and 18- to 24-inch high raised bed on his residential lot. He enclosed it with bent PVC pipe that is covered by sheets of plastic, giving him what is referred to as a "hoop'' house.

He raised tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, egg plants, and other vegetables, and put up a sign offering them for sale on his property along Minnesota Highway 7 on the community's south edge. Ansari said he probably gave away as many tomatoes as he sold. At season's end, he and his wife canned more of them than he'd ever care to do again.

But he discovered he loved raising and selling vegetables. "I've got the bug now. No really, it's fun,'' said Ansari, an ear-to-ear grin on his face.


The trouble started this year when Ansari took advantage of his large corner lot to erect a second, 96-foot long hoop house and began pounding the stakes for a third and fourth.

"It's a whole big mess,'' said Gerald Borg, whose home is directly across the street. "How would you like to live across from it?''

The city warned Ansari that he was in violation of city building and zoning ordinances. Both parties debated the issue at a meeting of the city's zoning commission.

Things came to a head Friday May 23. The city council had posted a notice in the Post Office stating a special meeting was to be held at 2 p.m. to discuss the "Ansari issue.'' Friends saw the notice and tipped him off. By that afternoon a crowd of 40 had gathered despite the holiday weekend, most of them to express support for him.

They never got the chance. The city council met with their attorney, and returned to say no comments would be heard. Instead of adopting a resolution to begin litigation against Ansari as originally planned, they opted to give both sides a chance to negotiate.

That's where things stand today: Attorneys for the two sides are to meet and seek a negotiated agreement.

Susan Stokes, executive director of the Farmer's Legal Aid Group of St. Paul, said FLAG is providing legal representation to Ansari. The non-profit organization supports the emergence of a local foods farm economy, and Ansari is doing just that, she said.

"He's doing everything right,'' said Stokes. "This is the kind of farming we like to support.''


Stokes describes Ansari's hoop houses as a "simple, innovative way to raise vegetables.'' "I don't see what the objection is really.''

Ansari said his main complaint is the same: He charges that while he has had conversations with the city and members of its zoning commission, he has never really been told exactly how he violates city ordinances.

"It's a moving target,'' said Tom Taylor, of the Land Stewardship Project in Montevideo, which has also come to his aid. He and other supporters see Ansari's enterprise as an economic benefit the community should embrace, not stomp on.

Attorney Troy Gilchrist, of the Kennedy and Gravens law firm, Minneapolis, said Ansari should be well aware of what he must do to comply with city ordinances. Gilchrist said the firm was retained by the city earlier this year. That was when he sent Ansari a detailed letter on how he interpreted city ordinances.

Gilchrist said the letter pointed out that city ordinance allows no more than two accessory buildings per residential lot, and that Ansari has two hoop houses and storage shed on the site, and the makings for two more hoop houses.

Also, Gilchrist said the ordinance restricts the amount of impervious surface allowed on any residential lot. Ansari probably exceeded the limit when he erected a second hoop structure; he is certainly over the amount by adding a third and fourth, according to the attorney.

Gilchrist said he also believes Ansari violates a city ordinance limiting the kinds of commercial activity that can occur in an area zoned for residential use.

Ansari disputes the interpretation that the hoop houses are buildings or structures: He likens them to tents, which he dismantles at the growing season's end.


He points out that he is not the first to raise and sell vegetables on a residential lot in town, but is the first to run afoul of City Hall for doing so. He expresses surprise that the city should be able to restrict something as innocuous as raising vegetables. "It's just for fun,'' he said. "It started as an accident.''

Ansari, who will turn 60 in June, said he is determined to keep moving forward, even though he admits that gardening is hardly the stress reliever for him that others find in it. As he continues to expand his raised beds, Ansari said his thoughts keep returning to the fear that they may be removed.

His neighbor across the street said he didn't mind when the first hoop house went up, but things have gone too far. "I think everything has got to go because he defied the city,'' said Borg.

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