Future uncertain for Berkeley community garden

All sorts of plants grown in the Ashby Community Garden, including miniature butternut squash, featured here. The goat was a temporary visitor, brought in to eat some weeds. Photo: Ashby Community Garden
All sorts of plants are grown in the Ashby Community Garden, including miniature butternut squash, featured here. The goat was a temporary visitor, brought in to eat some weeds. Photo: Ashby Community Garden

Update Feb. 9: The city of Berkeley has filed an objection to the proposed tax sale of Ashby Gardens, which means the sale will not go forward for now. Now the gardeners and Berkeley will figure out how to raise the back taxes and pay off the county. Once that happens, the land will be put in a trust and kept as open space for 30 years, as required by law.

Original story: For the last 12 years, the Ashby Community Garden on Ashby Avenue near Acton Street has served as a place that brought neighbors together.

Residents transformed two empty plots into a verdant space with room for flowers, vegetables, chickens, bees and a greenhouse. There are now monthly public workshops on everything from fermentation to composting to making natural dyes, musical performances, and the ability to just hang out in the sun and get one’s hands dirty.

But the future of the garden is now uncertain. The owner of the parcels at 1370 Ashby Ave., who gave verbal permission in 2004 for his property to be converted into a garden, has not paid his property taxes for five years. He owes $17,460.52, and Alameda County intends to auction off his land on March 18.


The garden in the summer. Photo: Ashby Community Garden
The garden in the summer. Photo: Ashby Community Garden

Making matters more complicated is the fact that the owner seems to have disappeared. Tax notices sent to his Las Vegas property have been returned to the tax collector’s office, according to members of the garden. Members have not communicated directly with him in some time, although they have a good lead on where to find him.

“He’s really difficult to locate but he knows we are there and he’s fine for us to be there,” said Jenny Shore, a garden member.

The garden’s other parcel, at 1376 Ashby Ave. is owned by different people and taxes are up to date.

The garden members are hoping the City of Berkeley can come to their rescue. According to the California Revenue & Taxation Code, a city can ask Alameda County to remove a property that is on an auction list if it will be used for a public purpose. Berkeley could state that it wants to use the parcel for either open space or affordable housing and pay the delinquent taxes to acquire it. Then it would not go up for auction.

Members of the community garden met with Mayor Tom Bates on Monday to discuss the issue. The hitch: Berkeley must decide what it wants to do by Friday, Feb. 5 and notify the county.

Bates “is considering their request,” said Charles Burress, a spokesman for the mayor. “The gardeners were hoping the city could purchase the property for community open space and allow the garden to continue to operate.”

Darryl Moore, who represents the district in which the garden sits, said he met with Acting City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley on Monday and heard about the situation. Moore believes the city will tell Alameda County that it is interested in acquiring 1370 Ashby Ave.

Bates is forming a city council subcommittee to decide what to do with the land, said Moore. Should it be used for open space or for affordable housing, which the city needs desperately, he said.  The subcommittee will examine the issue.

“There’s a huge need for affordable housing,” said Moore. “However, I would argue that there’s also a great need for gardens and open space. I would support the concept for more green space.”

Garden members are encouraging people to call their city council representatives and tell them the garden is worth saving.

“The city has a choice to make by Friday, which is why we want people to call in and give their support,” said Shore. She and others walked around the neighborhood passing out flyers earlier in the week and were gratified to hear how much people enjoy the space, she said.

If the city declines to help, the garden community will have to come up with an alternative plan. That could include talking to the owner or launching a crowd-funding campaign to buy the land. The garden is incorporated as a non-profit, so it could collect donations.

In 2002, the parcel was an eyesore, according to Nora Shourd, who has been involved with the Ashby Community Garden since its inception.

“The lot was kind of a mess,” she said. “There was a lot of trash, garbage, shopping carts, etc. It needed a program to clean it up. Over the years,  I cannot tell you how many people have come there to garden.”

One of the best things about the garden is that it is loosely operated and is open to everyone, said Shroud.

“It’s not like an average community garden,” she said. “There, people have plots and rules and responsibilities. It’s not fun to be part of those gardens.”

A fermentation class at Ashby Community Garden. Photo: Ashby Community Garden
A fermentation class at Ashby Community Garden. Photo: Ashby Community Garden

There is no waiting list to become part of the garden. People can have plots or just plant a few plants in a communal space. (There are about 21 individual plots in the garden.) And everybody is welcome to come to events.

Every year UC Berkeley students come and do a workday. The garden members distribute excess produce to nearby senior centers, said Shroud.

The garden has transformed a bleak stretch of Ashby Avenue.

“If you walk up and down Ashby Avenue there are almost no trees,” said Shroud. “It’s barren. [Now] it’s a green space. We have worked on it for years to make it fertile, a haven for the neighborhood, the birds, the bees. Kids love to come visit the garden because it’s a beautiful maze of plants they don’t see other places.”

Added Debra Christian: “We bring up the quality of life for that neighborhood. That’s one piece of beautiful for the neighborhood.”

Watch the video for more information on the Ashby Community Garden:

Ashby Community Garden from Woven Multimedia on Vimeo.

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