Community gardeners fight to keep using Sumner-owned land

Several problems have led to officials exploring new deal on city land

kari.plog@thenewstribune.comMarch 10, 2014 

A bumper sticker on Nancy Retynski’s car reads “Who’s your farmer?”

“I think it is one of the most important questions we can ask as a society,” the Sumner resident said.

But Retynski doesn’t have to ask herself that question. Because of the city’s community garden, her farmers are her own family, including 6-year-old son Jacob and 4-year-old daughter Zoe.

Now, the Retynskis and others who have spent more than six years growing food to both eat and donate are fighting to continue gardening on the city-owned land.

City staff is exploring a new agreement, but officials are cautious to rush into a commitment.

A state audit last fall uncovered several problems – related to finances, safety and appearance of the property – leaving the city fearful of increased legal risk.

Many council members suggested shutting down the garden while the gardeners reorganize.

But many garden supporters say stopping, even temporarily, could mean harming its long-term viability. They want to hang on to a farming tradition in the Puyallup Valley, known over the decades for rich soil that’s been lost in recent years to suburban development.

GARDEN GAMUT

Community gardening in Sumner started in March 2008 with two separate gardens: Shepherd’s Field, located behind Christ the King Lutheran Church, and what is known as The Farm on city-owned cemetery property.

Both gardens have shared $2,000 in annual city funds, spurred by support from former City Council member Randy Hynek.

Retynski said Hynek’s direction and support allowed gardeners to grow food and build camaraderie with a prime view of Mount Rainier as the backdrop.

“To have a place where people can go and connect with the earth again,” Retynski said, “it benefits so many people.”

Don Moore, the newly appointed garden board chairman, said he has donated at least a thousand pounds of produce to the food bank and neighbors in need; other gardeners have done the same.

In 2013, 40 gardeners from Sumner and surrounding cities rented 429 plots. Moore said the plots average about 24-by-30 feet, more than double the average plot sizes at other community gardens.

Over the years, between 4 and 6 acres have been cultivated for growing organic corn, squash, green beans and other vegetables, eventually expanding to include the Pierce Conservation District’s vegetable co-op program.

Moore said the group also has a chicken co-op with about 70 chickens for producing eggs, an unusual community garden feature in this state.

But beyond the obvious benefits, Retynski said, feeding and teaching her children are most rewarding.

Her son, Jacob, has defeated adult women in jam contests. She said you can’t put a value on that self-esteem boost.

“We’ve put six years of our lives into that specific piece of ground,” Retynski said during her tearful plea to the Sumner City Council last week. “It is very important to me.”

DIGGING UP ISSUES

As a fellow gardener, City Administrator John Galle said he wants the community garden to succeed.

But the annual state audit last fall uncovered problems that officials couldn’t ignore.

The auditor’s verbal report recommended staff more closely monitor the garden’s city and grant funds.

Further city review pointed to insufficient safeguards for financial reporting, prompting an independent audit of the garden. That report is pending, and city staff members are working to correct the financial review process.

“We weren’t able to get clear answers to questions regarding the expenditures, and where the assets were located for which the money was spent,” Galle said.

The city then sought a risk assessment that identified potential hazards from unsecured on-site machinery, risk of illness from livestock, and potential code violations related to buildings, plumbing and electrical services.

Additionally, the city said unsightly trash and old gardening supplies were left behind from the previous growing season and water was “unmetered” and used without charge.

“I feel that we have a responsibility to taxpayers to make sure this is running properly,” Galle said.

Council member Nancy Dumas said these issues aren’t new, and the timing and adamancy suggest the dispute could be more about conflicting personalities than legitimate concerns with the garden.

She said Hynek, who lost his bid for re-election last year and had tense relations with many members of the City Council, is being unfairly targeted by the city as the source of the problems.

“I do not disagree that we need to balance the checkbook, but not just on the backs of the gardeners,” Dumas said, adding that the city should take ownership of the problems. “I think there’s culpability on both sides.”

Hynek said last week that he has stepped aside to keep a “personality dispute” from interfering with the process.

“The continuation of the garden is more important than me being there,” he said.

Galle acknowledged the gardeners aren’t solely at fault for a lack of oversight.

In a memo to the City Council, he said the city handles all city and grant funds for the garden and processes applications and payments for plots.

“I feel that the city is partially responsible for the position we’re in,” he said.

Ultimately, Galle said, the goal is a self-sustaining, fiscally responsible garden that minimizes risk to the city.

PRUNING THE PROBLEMS

The gardeners say they wasted no time fixing many of the problems earlier this year.

Under a newly elected board and the new name Young Homestead Community Garden, gardeners formed work parties to clean up debris within a week of learning about the issues. They drafted a memo about their progress with a list of new rules for gardeners, including an updated fee structure.

But it is a work in progress, and they say some issues require help from the city.

Sumner Mayor Dave Enslow, however, has made it clear he doesn’t want more resources spent on the garden.

During a study session Feb. 24, Enslow said he thought the garden was distracting staff from more important city business. He scoffed at the suggestion of researching the issue further.

“I’d rather you work on selling the golf course,” he quipped during the meeting, drawing ire from some in the audience. (Sumner Meadows Golf Links has almost $6 million in debt and the city has been working to sell it to a developer for months.)

Retynski said the mayor’s attitude has been disrespectful to residents.

“For the man who was elected to take care of all of the citizens in his town, that includes me and that includes a lot of people at this garden,” she told The News Tribune. “Sumner is not just about industrial complexes. My big project is called feeding my family and raising my children. I think that’s a much bigger project than putting up warehouses.”

‘SWING IN THE PENDULUM’

Despite hesitance last week, the City Council voted 5-2 – with no votes from Cindi Hochstatter and Kathy Hayden — to work with the gardeners on a land-use agreement so long as they secure insurance to relieve the city of liability.

Kristen McIvor, a program director with the Pierce Conservation District, said that’s an extreme requirement that she’s never seen before. She said most cities treat community gardens similar to parks – assuming some risk but nothing major – and require participants to sign liability waivers.

“The city support of that garden used to be really impressive,” McIvor said. “It is an extreme swing in the pendulum from where they had been previously.”

McIvor told the City Council that the scale and organization of Sumner’s community garden is “amazing” and stands out in Pierce County.

City Attorney Brett Vinson said the city’s heightened concern is rooted in that scale and sophistication. He said users of community gardens in many other communities till soil by hand or with simple tools.

“(A) waiver is not sufficient enough to protect against the type of liability the heavy machinery creates,” Vinson said. “People don’t use rototillers in a park.”

The gardeners applied for insurance last week and continue to work with the city.

Retynski hopes the end result won’t leave her asking where her food comes from; she prefers her family of farmers.

“It’s good earth,” she said of the garden. “It’s good people.”

IF YOU GO

What: Sumner study session on community garden land-use agreement

When: Monday at 6 p.m.

Where: Council chambers at City Hall, 1104 Maple St.

Go online to ci.sumner.wa.us for more information.

Kari Plog: 253-597-8682 kari.plog@thenewstribune.com @KariPlog

The News Tribune is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service