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Lawns versus ideas

February 23, 2013
Keith Johnson inside the hoop house at Renaissance Farm. Note the lush produce despite the time of year.

Keith Johnson inside the hoop house at Renaissance Farm. Note the lush produce despite the time of year.

Permaculture teachers tell us that change occurs on the margins, in the zone that lies between forest and field. This is exactly where Peter Bane and Keith Johnson made the choice to settle down: a neglected property of just under an acre, one mile outside the city limits. The two men are respectively publisher and webmaster of Permaculture Activist magazine, the longest-running permaculture publication in the world. They are visionaries, and they knew that such a property on the margins of the city and the countryside had enormous potential for change: change that would demonstrate a sustainable lifestyle.

There the partners renovated a pair of decrepit 1950s ranch houses, weatherproofing and retrofitting them to minimize the carbon footprint. The weedy lawn was replaced with edible landscaping that included fruit and nut trees, berry bushes, flowers and vegetables. Limestone from nearby quarries was used to pave pathways, and a number of goldfish ponds double as rainwater storage systems. In the back of the lot stand beehives. Their home office contains a library of resources on self-sufficiency.

Solar panels on the porch roof supply all electric needs to the house. The gutter downspouts feed into two hand-built cement cisterns which supply water to a number of small hydrants scattered about the yard, enabling crops to be watered using a simple gravity feed with little need for city water. Against one of the water tanks they built a cement root cellar where they could store crates of turnips, carrots, rutabagas and potatoes during the winters. On the north end of the property they erected two hoop houses in which they could grow vegetables throughout the winter. Nearby they built a two-story barn that could serve also as a workshop and dry storage unit, because they needed a better place than the inside of their house (or a now-removed 28-ft. trailer) to extract honey, hang herbs and saw wood.

By that time the former rundown property had evolved into the aptly-named Renaissance Farm, a place that not only fed and housed them but also was a laboratory for hands-on demonstrations. It has become a mecca for local sustainability hounds seeking to glimpse the future. In effect, the Dark Ages of sterile suburbia had been succeeded by the Renaissance of learning and teaching by example.

The neighbors gave every appearance of enjoying the changes, but somewhere nearby lives an unknown person who views Renaissance Farm as an eyesore. This person complained to county officials, who then informed Keith and Peter that they were violating zoning standards.

With a near-complete lack of lawn, and vegetables growing in the front yard, Renaissance Farm admittedly doesn’t fit the usual American profile of curb-appeal. Anyone who has not taken the tour might look at the property in passing and think “What the heck is going on there?” One of Bloomington’s home appraisal professionals once laughed, “Perma-culture? I call it perma-mess.”

So what did Renaissance Farm do that was wrong?

Keith explained. “The zoning in our fringe district is Residential Estate, RE-2.5, which allows ‘crops and pasture,’ i.e. agriculture. The standard lot here is 2.5 acres, though we have only a quarter of that. Setbacks designed for larger properties disadvantage us, making about 40% of our lot not usable for structures. This we have learned to our chagrin in recent months. For many years, the small tidy elements we built and tucked into the marginal edges and corners of the lot—water tanks, firewood shelters, a root cellar, hoop houses, one after another, seemed perfectly sensible, were accepted well by the neighbors, drew praise, and aroused little or no concern anywhere, or so we thought, but now have put us in the center of a complex web of dysfunctional government regulations and various prejudices, official and unofficial.”

In short, their additions near the property lines violate county setback rules. Additionally, no more than 10% of a property can be covered by buildings, and their home and small subsidiary structures probably now cover between 11.4% and 15% of the lot, depending on how they are categorized.

“We got where we are by following lawful practices and moreover doing excellent ecological design and conducting sensitive neighborly outreach,” Keith stated. “We were open in our actions. We mitigated runoff from our lot to a degree we believe is unmatched anywhere in the County if not the state. The lot is contoured; the soils are deeply mulched; we have planted trees almost everywhere. We harvest water from our main roofs for catchment and reuse on the farm, and from our driveway for the garden. We developed increasing amounts of water storage—both tanks and ponds—in the face of drought, something everyone here needs to learn from.”

He points out that despite the County’s official stance of supporting sustainability, local farming, and home-based employment, the design standards which are targeting Renaissance Farm were intended to maintain a dysfunctional pattern of separate houses located on grassy and unproductive landscapes.

The irony is that their neighborhood was once all farmland. Since Renaissance Farm’s founding, several local neighbors have planted gardens and begun keeping poultry, bees, and rabbits.

What harm is being done by Renaissance Farm to the neighbors or the public? Keith and Peter are latter-day American pioneers, turning wasteland into a productive farm. They are hard-working, caring people who contribute to their community and their nation. Peter served on the City of Bloomington’s Peak Oil Task Force and wrote the chapter on Sustenance for a report that was adopted by the City Council. Keith presented at TEDX Bloomington and served more than a year on the board of the Local Growers Guild. Both have given numerous pro bono talks to community groups and various Indiana University classes. They have taught in communities around the country. Peter’s recent book, The Permaculture Handbook: Garden farming for town and country, has been praised by other notable writers who include David Holmgren, Joel Salatin, Gary Nabhan, Scott Russell Sanders, Vicki Robin, and many others.

Please support them by writing to the Monroe County Board of Zoning Appeals, c/o Monroe County Planning,501 North Morton Street, Suite 224, Bloomington, Indiana 47404, with copies emailed to Keith,, and attending the hearing at the County Courthouse on April 3 at 6:00 pm.


[See my subsequent blog, for the outcome of their zoning appeal.]

A perfect cabbage at Renaissance Farm.

A perfect cabbage at Renaissance Farm.


From → ideas and trends

  1. pictfamily permalink

    fascinating article – thanks

  2. stourleyk permalink

    Looked into the Monroe County Zoning Ordinance, Miss C. Found “Estate Residential” ER, not RE. No note of a ER2.5, though. Minimum lot size for ER is, nonetheless, 2.5 acres. This lot is nonconforming, probably existing nonconforming. The setbacks are, indeed, hardships for a below minimum-size lot. This seems to be headed toward a zoning appeal. Is this lot within the Rural Community Zoning Overlay (RCZO)? The premise of the RCZO is to encourage rural redevelopment. The owners of this lot could be said to be in keeping with the spirit of such. Certain appurtenances of suburban life are permitted in setbacks (recreation equipment, etc.) I would argue that appurtenances of rural life should therefore also be permitted. If not in a RCZO then the appeal would be hardship.

    Date: Sat, 23 Feb 2013 15:58:45 +0000 To:

    • I believe that Peter and Keith are going to request a variance. I have heard several similar tales of zoning struggles over the years and it seems obvious that many (if not most) buyers have very little understanding of exactly what the various zoning classifications actually mean. The system would undoubtedly work better if every sale of land was accompanied by a clear explanation by the realtor of the exact uses that are allowed or prohibited on any given piece of land, in layman’s language. But that might be beyond the abilities of most realtors, for the simple reason that many zoning classifications appear to be arbitrary, obscure or counterintuitive. As we saw recently with properties in the Old Northeast neighborhood of the city, zoning can even be changed without notifying the owners. It’s a tangled mess.

      Thanks for writing!

  3. Tom Gibson permalink

    What’s the status of this zoning dispute? The latest issue of Permaculture Activist asks us readers to write a note of support for Peter and Keith–which I’m happy to do and also to recruit other letter writers from Cleveland who have benefited from Peter’s teaching. But the latest information I’ve been able to find on the web is two months old.

    Tom Gibson
    Cleveland Heights, Ohio

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