Tuesday, August 28, 2012

City Officials Say Container Garden Can Stay, with Modifications

By Christina Georgiou

A set of container gardens around a Downtown residential building that has recently become the center of controversy for area gardeners and nature lovers will not be required to be removed if the owners of some of the plants are willing to make minor modifications to the placement of the pots, Easton city officials say.

Laini Abraham's garden on Sitgreaves Street, pictured with
a petition on Change.org demanding that it be allowed to stay,
was not the target of Easton city code officials, who were
in fact addressing a complaint about another potted garden
around the corner on Church Street, which belongs to
Abraham's neighbors.
“We're rational people,” said Mayor Sal Panto said Monday. “There's got to be a way to do this.”

The whole controversy, though, may have arisen from a series of misunderstandings.

A petition on Change.org started by building resident Laini Abraham has garnered more than 550 signatures in less than a week, demanding that the city allow the urban gardens to stay after her landlord was verbally warned that some of the.potted plants violate city ordinances by blocking the sidewalk.

But Abraham's potted garden, located on Sitgreaves Street and pictured with the petition, was not the focus of the warning, both city officials and property owner Bill Barrel have confirmed.

The building, located at Church and Sitgreaves streets, is home to two sets of planting containers. One, belonging to resident Abraham and located on Sitgreaves Street, does not block the sidewalk and was not the focus of an informal verbal warning that sidewalks must be kept clear.

This is the container garden on Church Street that came to
Easton city code enforcement officers' attention last week,
after a man apparently complained to the city that he tripped
in the street in front of an oncoming car while walking around
the plants.
 The other set of potted plants, located on Church Street, belongs to two other residents of the building and blocks the narrow sidewalk of the alley street, technically a violation of city code. It was a recent complaint the city received from a person who claimed he was forced to walk in the street and tripped in front of an oncoming vehicle that brought the container garden to the city's codes office's attention, city officials say.

They added that the city tries to work with property owners to find an amicable solution before fines or penalties are assessed, and that property owners are always given time to address a problem before that happens.

No formal warning or letter has been issued by the city on the matter demanding the gardens' removal either.

Barrel says that he asked all the tenants to remove the gardens because he felt he couldn't tell some tenants to remove or modify their gardens and not others.

“As a building owner, it's a little more complicated for me,” he said. “I don't want to get into a hassle with the city. If there were a fine, I'd be the one to have to pay it.”

He said he understands both perspectives on the matter.

“Most people like (the gardens), but someone complained. And it is against the law,” Barrel said.

But he said he's happy to hear the city is willing to compromise on the matter.

“They just have got to give us a little time to do it,” he said.

An image that accompanied the petition in favor of
the gardens is not accurate when it comes to the legality of
dumpsters and weeds, both of which are also technically
 in violation of city sidewalk ordinances. However, situations
in the city's narrow alleyways are decided on a case-by-case
basis, and there is no formal permit for
a dumpster, city Planning Director Becky Bradley said.
Abraham said she's happy the city is willing to compromise, but feels the city is “backtracking to save face” and the law is arbitrary, given that dumpsters are sometimes block sidewalks when other placement space isn't available.

“I think it's crazy that that's the deal,” Abraham said. “People have been walking around those plants for three years with no problem... Dumpsters are exempted because they're considered necessary. But it would be good if gardens were considered necessary too.”
However, Easton Planning Director Becky Bradley said Abraham's statement about dumpsters being exempted is not entirely accurate.

“There is no formal permit for a dumpster,” she said by phone on Tuesday, adding that the placement of dumpsters is determined on a case-by-case basis when a new business is opened during the zoning hearing process.

She added that sometimes they are moved or placed by waste disposal companies without approval from the city. In the cases where someone complains or they are creating a nuisance, the city then assesses the situation and in some cases, the receptacle's removal or relocation are ordered when possible, Bradley said.

Waste removal is an essential service, she said, and planters can be easily rearranged to keep a walkway clear enough for pedestrian passage.

Though they block the sidewalk entirely,
it is unclear whether these waste receptacles like these
are allowable, as the matter of placement is decided on a
case-by-case basis, depending on the property's use and
space limitations. Sometimes property owners or
waste haulers relocate receptacles without approval,
city officials said, but often unless there are complaints,
the matter often goes unaddressed.
The city considers most things on a case-by-case basis when it comes to alleyways, which are all largely very narrow and unconforming to official city code Bradley said, noting that they are also used for servicing buildings and businesses so main streets aren't clogged.

“Alleys are very—they're a little funky,” she said. “They're a little more democratic in terms of use.”

Bradley said because the alleys serve a variety of purposes and people, the city largely doesn't involve itself with technical code violations unless something is brought to officials' attention.

“There are a lot of bigger issues than a container garden we have to deal with,” she said, adding that issues like blighted buildings and habitually negligent landlords whose buildings constitute serious health and safety issues are much higher on her department's list of priorities.

Another city employee, who asked not to be identified because they are not authorized to speak with the press, confirmed that Easton tries to give more leeway in terms of code enforcement when it comes to city alleyways.

“You're talking about these tiny, little streets. The sidewalks aren't even three feet wide,” the employee said. “So we're stuck between a rock and a hard place. Everything is within reason. But (people) shouldn't have to walk in the street, because there are idiots (driving) out there.”

Panto said the city has no intention of fining Barrel if the planters on Church Street are rearranged to satisfy the need of pedestrians to pass without having to step into the street. He noted that the city hasn't even issued a formal written warning.

“The city has looked the other way for three years...The idea that we're out to fine the landlord $1,000 is incorrect,” Panto said of the maximum fine that could be assessed for non-compliance. “It doesn't happen for.slumlords, and it certainly isn't going to happen for planters. Common sense will prevail.”


In response to the petition and a number of emails from residents regarding the matter, Mayor Sal Panto posted a response on his Facebook page late last week, the text of which appears below as written:

Thank you for signing the petition. I truly appreciate your voice in this matter and thank you for getting involved. As a clarification to the events that led to the visit by our code officer
who incidentally has also signed the petition, we did not go out looking for this infraction. We received a complaint about the pots. A pedestrian was walking down the alley and tripped trying to go around the pots and fell into the alley in front of a car. He was upset and reported the incident. We followed up. The code officer spoke to the landlord and was told that it was a violation, which it is. However, there are many violations that when they arise common sense is used rather than the letter of the law.

Alleys in our downtown have an interesting history and have come full circle. Initially homes were located on them and people lived on them. My father grew up on an alley in downtown called West Street. They played and important role in the layout of the city. As time grew on more and more people moved out of the downtown (mostly forced by urban “removal”) as more and more commercial activity moved in the center of the city. Today we see residential uses on the rise but we still have, and want a vibrant downtown.

This is where the collision occurs between tow distinct uses. Businesses need the alleys for deliveries and pickups and yet most of these business building footprints occupy the entire site thereby requiring deliveries on one lane streets blocking traffic and against the law and no place for things like garbage and recycling containers. So while ugly garbage containers are “accepted” because of need, planters are more of a voluntary addition. Don’t get me wrong, the more plants and flowers the better. So we have a code that is required because pedestrians need to have safe places to walk and yet some of our sidewalks are only 3 feet wide.

Our code and building department reviews all requests for businesses in the downtown and looks at ancillary services like where the garbage cans will be placed. We also review plans for outdoor seating which we want to encourage but there must be a 3 foot clearance for walkers and wheelchairs.

I will personally take a look at this particular situation. I have seen the pictures online and I believe the issue may be with the larger round planters which appear to block the entire width of the sidewalk whereas the rectangular ones appear to allow for some passage. One solution may be the use of long rectangular planters that still allow some room for pedestrian passage.

The matter has been brought to our attention and I will make sure that we find an amicable resolve. We certainly don’t want to curtail the greening of the city, we want to encourage it. If you have any other suggestions please do not hesitate to email me. Our minds are open.

Again thank you for your participation in the local government process.



  1. I cannot see this in any other way than a big set back for the pedestrian in a pedestrian unfriendly town. There is no question that maneuvering anywhere in downtown by foot is difficult. The fact that anyone would even think that a person relying on both legs would have to adopt the agility of a mountain goat to be able to get across town is wrong. Just think of the problem in this context. Let's move all the containers whether plant or garbage to the street. You cannot do that. You block the vehicles using the street. So, that makes it OK to block the sidewalks. If you don't treat pedestrians equal to vehicles, then Easton remains a pedestrian UN friendly town. The attitudes of the people pushing for these obstructions and hazards is condescending. It's always "walk elsewhere". The sidewalks cannot accommodate both pedestrians and potted plants. The plants must go.

    1. How do you feel about dumpsters?

  2. It seems to me that this Laini woman is just one big whiner. I have been active in this city for many years and I laugh at the people that say -- "oh poor Laini, the city shouldn't pick om you -- you do so much for the city." Hello, what has she done? What group does she volunteer her time? What organization does she help in town? I have yet to see her. She complains but doesn't get involved. If you want to complain than do something positive for the city --- other than your personal business. It's a great book but it's your business.

    The city has been very patient with her and to now learn that it wasn't even her plants well its just hilarious. She should move to her beloved adopted town - Bethlehem or contribute something to make a positive change.

    1. If you've never seen her out, I have to wonder if you're the one who doesn't leave the house. Being a grouchy jerk on the internet doesn't make you an active citizen.

  3. The city has also been very patient with the mayor. Where is his beloved adopted town?

  4. Wow, so you made that big of a deal, and all it did was put your neighbor at an even higher risk of losing his/her sidewalk art. I'm all for the garden and plants/art on the sidewalk, but maybe next time you shouldn't panic and start name calling.

  5. Bigger risk? My neighbors' gardens would be gone right now if it were not for that petition. So would mine.

  6. The City only decided the gardens were ok to stay after receiving over 1500 emails and hearing support of the gardens. And that support was for all three of these gardens, not just mine. It's irrelevant which garden caused the actual complaint when the response of the City was to issue a warning to the landlord who felt he had no choice but have all the gardens be removed.

  7. Laini brings up good points on fairness and inequality, but a solution to problems is what is most beneficial for all.
    We live in an imperfect world but should follow the law. This seems to be a Public Safety Liability Exposure Issue.
    Of the legal stuff now and what If everyone made an effort to get along, by showing consideration and being aware of those around you. Ask the City to look into starting a nonprofit organization that provides help and assistance to low-income people, children and community groups in cities to grow their own food from garden plots located in backyards, vacant lots, schoolyards and at community sites.

  8. I'm already working with organizations who are doing that. I don't go around advertising these things. Most of the stuff I'm working on now isn't public. It will be soon. But I do resent the idea that doing your own independent project, like my personal garden, is not as valid as doing things with an organization. My garden isn't just for me. It's for anyone who walks down this alley.

    People should not have to feel like their efforts aren't valid unless they're sitting on a committee of some organization. And yes, I've done that, too. Now I do things differently. I volunteer my time. I donate ads. I donate books and photos. I'm tired of people criticizing me just because I don't advertise every charitable thing I do or sit on the same committee they do.

  9. So to the brave anonymous commenter above, you have no idea the swear and tears i have invested here. And that includes having to deal with the uninformed, petty comments from people like you. But that's ok. I'm used to it. AndI'm not doing what i do for you or the City anyway. I do it for this PLACE. That is what i love. Have a nice day.

  10. Um, a small point of fact: "issuing a warning" is technically when the matter is put in writing by a letter being sent to a property owner by the City informing them of a violation, defining what must be done to rectify the situation and giving the allegedly offending parties a certain amount of time to make that happen before further action is taken by the city or penalties assessed. That did not happen in this case. The code officer verbally spoke with the property owner. No letter was sent, therefore a warning was not issued.

    The gardens on Sitgreaves Street were not part of above mentioned discussion--this I have directly from all the people involved in that discussion. The containers on Church Street were the issue, brought to the attention of the city by a complaint, which they are bound to investigate.

    The initial decision that all the plants would have to go was made by the landlord, NOT THE CITY, who verbally told the property owner that the sidewalk must be kept clear for pedestrian traffic to pass without having to step into the roadway. The landlord has since said he will reconsider his decision.

    I realize these are fine points, but they are key to the total issue. I spent nearly four days hunting down all the facts I could find on this issue, and spoke with many people to get to the bottom of what happened.

    In the end, the story was rather different than I expected.

  11. The petition was for both gardens not just Laini's. Regardless of which the city told had to move- it was valid. Technicalities aside, the warning issued was verbal or written, the inevitability of the church street garden having to be taken down or drastically scaled back was evident. Even the code inspector signed the petition- I think that is enough proof anyone should require to see a need for it.

    To those attacking Laini- get a life. Whether her garden was the issue or not, she put herself and her name on the line to keep her building's gardens; an effort that appears to have worked and drawn popular support.

  12. It's important to note that city codes do have more restrictions on vegetation than on dumpsters. The argument over container gardens not having the same sidewalk privileges as trash containers is a factual one. Plenty of language about plant restrictions, but the little about trash cans can be side stepped on a case by case basis. I'm no legal expert, but walking around downtown alleys it's obvious: noxious smelling dumpsters all around with no code inspectors knocking on the owners' doors. I would assume pedestrians can trip over (or walking around) them just as easily as a tomato plant, no?
    The church street garden is one of the most beautiful sights downtown. A real travesty to think it can't take up the same amount of sidewalk space as those eyesores.

    It would be nice to see the code office prioritize its issues- focus on the slumlords, leave the squash alone.

  13. After completed your Landlord Statement Letter send one of the cop to your land lard.

    Landlord Statement Letter

  14. I don't understand officials and council, specifically their intent to decrease the physical appeasement and happiness of the people. I hope the garden was more prominent. They treat us like trash.

    -Land Source Container Service, Inc.