On June 13, the City Council of Columbiana, OH made a strong statement in favor of personal freedom. What started as a front-yard gardening ban turned into a challenge to expansive local governing. Not only did the proposed ordinance submitted exclude any language preventing front yard gardens, but the Council threw out the entire motion and need for a gardening ordinance at all. Most importantly, the Council passed a motion to reconsider the section of the City Code that explicitly enumerates citizens’ rights! Of course, that means that technically, gardens are still illegal in Columbiana, but so are cats (because they aren’t mentioned in the code).
But the real story here is how any one person can make a difference. Columbiana resident Tony Dolan was the first to stand up and question the direction of the City Council. He lives at the end of a typical small-town allotment and purchased over six acres next to his lot. At the very back of the lot, a few hundred yards off the highway, he planted a garden. He wanted to add a storage shed and went to the Planning and Zoning commission in Columbiana. When he took his plans to the Commission, their reaction seemed defensive to Tony – they asked if he was the “chicken guy” and made him get rid of his backyard chickens before they would even let him have his public hearing to pursue what he and his wife wished to do on their property. They were hoping to start a community garden/learning center to have a place in their community that all could come and take part in the process and observing where and how food is actually grown and tended to. Given the direction their town was heading with a sense of local shopping and local business leaning on each other, the Dolans simply wished to give back.
Dutifully, they disposed of their chickens, but opened a can of worms. Tony started attending meetings, and started questioning the city leaders. This man never had political aspirations; he just wanted to build a life for his family in a great small rural community. His vision of the city is to encourage local artisans and entrepreneurs. His family is typical of a growing trend to eschew commercialism and encourage sustainability, support for local farms and a vision for a return to a less complicated life. From the outside, Columbiana looks like the perfect place to so many sharing his vision.
Tony’s interest in the government was well timed as he watched the Council move more and more toward developing a set of rules and limitations on property use that seemed more like those of a homeowner’s association than a City Government.
He might have thrown up his arms in defeat, like so many when confronted with the prospect of “fighting city hall.” Had it been one man against the City, he probably would have lost. Had he not stood up, Columbiana might have fallen like so many small towns and cities are and lost their right to use their property as they see fit, instead of how it fits a “Stepford” vision of a planning commission.
With the help of social media, Tony reached out to his neighbors and shared his story. And from there interest grew. The individual keyboard warriors passed it on and the word spread across the region. In fact, it made national news. When the public hearing was held, local press, folks from at least four area counties joined those citizens brave enough to pack the public house and stand for their rights.
The hearing was bureaucratic and procedure driven, as is any organization. It opened with a public hearing. In spite of dozens of people who cared enough to show up, Mr. Dolan spoke for the group. In a time restricted by Council rules, he focused on the core issues and said what everyone was really there to say. He stood for personal freedom from an over imposing government. He asked the Council to reconsider their position and role in determining the vision for the future.
The Council then proceeded with the hearing of the ordinance; then wasted about 20 minutes discussing a possible amendment that if it had passed would have been in conflict with an existing ordinance. When Mr. Dolan raised his hand numerous times to point out the section of conflicting code he was ignored and denied a voice even for a point of information. Even the City Attorney didn’t know their own code! It’s no wonder – it’s extensive! The point is that the face to face town meeting wasn’t an effective way to discuss and debate the issue in a manner helpful to conciliation.
But when the council members spoke on the issue this time, they sounded different. Instead of the routine of making, amending and passing motions to make the laws work better, it was clear they had thought about the scope of what they were doing. They all spoke strongly and passionately on the issue and defeated it in a 5-1 vote. More importantly, they agreed to re-evaluate section 1260.05 of the code (see insert) at a future meeting. The paradigm had changed!
The irony is that since the ordinance was defeated it is still illegal to garden at all in Columbiana until 1260.05 is changed! We are still looking for the section of code that allows breathing.
What happened to change their minds? The public hearing didn’t provide the structure or opportunity. While the Council members refrained from commenting, it was clear that all were aware of and most had read the many discussions taking place through social media. The keyboard warriors had gotten them to think about the issue. This group of keyboard warriors was particularly effective because it wasn’t vitriolic; the discussions were rational and respectful. No one called to eliminate Planning and Zoning or the need for reasonable oversight and ordinances. There were no ad hominem attacks but a thorough discussion of the issue, including recognition of differing viewpoints and perspectives.
In the end, a few focused individuals can make a difference. A special thanks to Tony Dolan for carrying the load for so long, but he wasn’t alone. The keyboard warriors stood up, local gardeners showed up, residents stood up, liberty minded people from across the region stood up. Most importantly, City Council stood up. Thank you to all of those people who understand that yes, one person can make a difference.