Participating in the governmental process
In my community of Bloomington, Indiana, I was enormously touched and moved by the recent turnout of supporters of Peter Bane and Keith Johnson, whose Renaissance Farm had been cited for county zoning rules. Some eighty people turned out to watch the proceedings and most of them stepped up to the lectern to speak in defense of the mini-farm on the edge of the city. There were so many speakers that it took nearly three hours for the Board of Zoning Appeals to hear all of them, even with speaking time limited to three minutes each. One of the zoning commissioners spent much of that time with his face buried in his hands, listening wearily. The meeting ran to four hours. Not a single person spoke in opposition to Renaissance Farm.
I haven’t seen anything like this kind of support in my experience, and the BZA had never seen anything like it either. Instead of showing anger or contentiousness, the speakers were extremely respectful and courteous, which lent weight to their arguments. Each one sat down to a burst of applause from the waiting audience. There were many excellent observations made during the course of the three hours. Some pointed out that permaculture is what everyone ought to be doing in their own yards; others cited Peter and Keith’s status as educators, and as publishers of Permaculture Activist magazine, the world’s oldest continuously published publication on that topic. One man noted that he went to an academic conference in China during which he conversed with a man from South Africa who asked him whether he knew Peter and Keith. “Who would have thought that on a trip to China I’d meet someone from Africa who knew what was going on at Renaissance Farm in my own city,” he said. During my own opportunity to speak I pointed out that all progressive movements of the past, from women’s suffrage to civil rights, got their start by butting up against established rule of law. “You have the power to grant these variances tonight,” I said, looking at the commissioners; “you don’t need to deny them simply for the sake of being rigid and inflexible.” The best comment of the night came from a woman who waited until almost the end to come forward and speak. “Everyone here tonight has used the word ‘sustainability’ over and over,” she said; “but what Peter and Keith are doing is not sustainable. What they’re doing is REGENERATIVE.”
She was right on target. In this sad, strife-torn, polluted world, what we need are policies that will help regenerate our society and our globe. Peter and Keith are living examples of what can be accomplished if one simply has the vision and the energy: they transformed a ragged and run-down .6-acre lot with two decrepit buildings, and created a thriving and fertile mini-farm. Their neighbors love the transformation and many of them turned out in person to speak on their behalf. People in their vicinity are now gardening and raising chickens as the influence spreads beyond the boundaries of Renaissance Farm.
And yet the BZA did not opt to take a progressive stance, despite the fact that the county is right now considering altering its rules to encourage exactly the sort of thing that Peter and Keith have been doing. The two men had been cited for a number of violations (seven or eight at least). They were granted their request for variances for all of their smaller infractions, which included placing small structures too close to the property lines, but ultimately they were denied a variance for their largest violation: their hand-built concrete two-story barn, which they had constructed too close to the property line on account of having to skirt a septic field in the center of the property. There was literally nowhere else it could have been built except right where it is.
The BZA members stated that they supported in theory what the two men have accomplished at Renaissance Farm, but felt they had to make an example of the largest infraction of the rules — the barn — because of what they felt was bad faith on the part of Peter and Keith, for building without a permit and violating setback rules. This is a debatable point since the two men had approached the county before they developed their property and had been given incomplete and conflicting advice. Many of their supporters feel a great sense of disappointment that this largest variance was denied by the BZA, and the two men of course are emotionally exhausted and very bruised by the entire process.
But the great thing about the four-hour meeting at the BZA was the show of united support. It was a truly captivating sight. As long as permaculture has friends like the ones I listened to last week, the cause will not falter or be set back. Hopefully a way will be found to enable Peter and Keith to continue operations at Renaissance Farm. The obvious value of permaculture has taken root and is spreading.