Troubles in Eden

Arlington’s alternative lifestyle gardeners are trying to make peace with the man.
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Posted March 5, 2014 by CAROLINE COLLIER w/ PHOTOS BY BRIAN HUTSON in News

Smith was disappointed. She believed she had successfully communicated to Jones the unique needs of a wildcrafted farm. She had trimmed the overhanging trees, the only violation she believed could potentially affect anyone else. But someone in her neighborhood had been complaining.

“We wanted to have a mutually beneficial relationship,” she lamented. “We’re not lazy. We’re not neglectful. We’re super-dedicated.”

The Garden residents wrote letters to the city, justifying the need for tall grasses and bags of leaves. They asked for a listing of specific laws forbidding the grass and trash bags piled next to the house. Code compliance never responded.

The violation notices kept arriving. Its code permits the city to levy a fine of up to $200 per violation per day.

Smith: “You can bring your family here, and we’ll feed them.” YouTube.com

Smith: “You can bring your family here, and we’ll feed them.” YouTube.com

Bill Birk, who lives two houses down, was OK with the Garden’s rearranged lawn. “They don’t cause any problems,” he said. “They stay to themselves.”

Jones, Lucas, and perhaps another neighbor disagreed. In February 2013 Arlington Code Compliance held a neighborhood meeting about “problem properties” but did not inform anyone at the Garden of Eden. Smith, Eaker, and Alrutz would have been happy to have their neighbors, even those in the new subdivision, over for dinner and to hear about sustainable gardening practices.

The demands arriving in the mail grew more hostile. City officials threatened to show up at the garden and “abate” the violations in three days if all problems were not corrected.

Smith responded by requesting a hearing on the nuisance allegations, and code officials set it for two days after getting her letter. Smith did not attend. She felt that 36 hours’ notice wasn’t enough to prepare her responses. She called Lucas and explained she did not agree with the timing or format. The hearing proceeded without her.

Feeling railroaded, Smith and Eaker sent letters to Arlington Mayor Robert Cluck and Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson. They pleaded for help. No one answered. The violations total crossed the $10,000 mark. Even if they had agreed to being at fault and been willing to pay, they couldn’t afford the fines.

In addition, Smith, as the property owner, was charged with several misdemeanors. She requested another hearing but found the process to be impersonal and fruitless. A city employee who would not give his name and knew nothing of the dispute “rubber-stamped” the documents she brought and wouldn’t discuss the disagreement, she says. She felt that the city cared only about collecting her money.

On one side, the city of Arlington has rules about grass length, siding on houses, and requiring that citizens have hot water in their homes.

On the other side, the Garden of Eden residents have established a more ecologically minded life, in which living in symbiosis with the earth is more important than having uniformly mowed grass. And they didn’t anticipate how serious the city was about enforcing its rules.

An apparent clash of paradigms was coming to a head.

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Arlington’s ordinance defines a nuisance as “a condition which substantially interferes with the use and enjoyment of land by causing unreasonable discomfort or annoyance to persons of ordinary sensibilities.”

By the beginning of 2013, the Garden of Eden was turning into a bit of a hippie commune. Chickens moved into a coop, and visitors set up tents in the yard for extended stays. A partially buried SUV was outfitted to serve as an informal motel room for future travelers.

The free-spirited, polyamorous gardeners apparently had stepped over the line, in the eyes of someone with “ordinary sensibilities.”

Jones wrote up a lengthy affidavit detailing all the garden’s code violations, to back up his request for a warrant to enable the city to come in and mow.

What Jones saw as unclean premises and “nuisance” outside storage, the Gardeners saw as necessary adjuncts to a permaculture garden. Jones called the bags of leaves and other items “unwholesome,” but without many of those, the gardeners could not compost soil.

The Gardeners didn’t dispute that tree limbs had been hanging over the road, but they had trimmed them months earlier and written asking for further instructions.

As for the high weeds and grass, in the Gardeners’ view, the real nuisance would have been the fields of dead crops during the summer had the grasses been cut.

While the Code Compliance Department alleged that the garden was improper land use and a home-based business, the Garden folks saw it as the future of the world’s food supply and a far better use of the land than growing imported, decorative grass species that needed frequent mowing.

Arlington called the Uber Dank café a prohibited food establishment; residents claim it was an informal gathering of friends.

Jones’ affidavit repeatedly refers to a missing piece of siding on the house. To Smith, the house is hers, and she can repair the siding whenever she wants.

A municipal judge signed the affidavit just before the end of the business day on Thursday, Aug. 1. The abatement process was under way.

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While code officials were worrying about tall weeds in the garden, Arlington police were worrying about a more potent type of weed. According to the affidavit of an undercover narcotics officer, a confidential source had said that Eaker was in possession of a few ounces of marijuana and that the plant was being grown in the garden.

It may have seemed only logical to police to make the leap to the idea of a full-blown marijuana operation — shacked-up hippie types living alternative lifestyles on three acres? C’mon. Evidence to back up their guesses, however, seems to have dissipated like smoke.

Two days before the approval of the nuisance abatement warrant, a narcotics detective identified only as M. Perez filed an extensive affidavit backing up a request for a very different warrant.

According to the affidavit, Perez had sent two undercover Arlington officers to spy on the suspected traffickers, who, as advertised, gave free tours of the organic garden and conducted workshops on permaculture farming.

The undercover officers never saw anything illegal, but Perez pressed on, discovering an “Uber Dank High Vibe Cuisine” deal discussed on the garden’s website. According to the affidavit, “uber dank is also slang for high quality marijuana,” and, “Some people consume marijuana by baking it into food.”

Arlington invited the Texas Department of Public Safety to conduct aerial surveillance at the Garden. A pilot, considered an expert marijuana-spotter, flew over the garden in a helicopter on July 30. He saw taller plants growing around smaller ones. The leaves were indeed green, and from 400 feet in the air, he concluded that Perez’ source was correct.

A visiting gardener came into the house on Mansfield Cardinal Road that day with a strange story of having seen a helicopter and a drone hovering over the plants. He was sure about the drone, having seen pictures of the $200,000 Leptron Avenger unmanned aerial vehicles purchased by the Arlington Police Department with a grant from the Department of Homeland Security. The police have denied using one of their drones to spy on the Garden’s sweet potatoes.

Based on the aerial flyby and the informant, Perez’ affidavit predicted that officers would find a full-scale marijuana operation where weed was grown, processed, and packaged, with detailed records kept, and probably lots of money, electronics and jewelry.

The affidavit also stated that traffickers routinely conceal money in foreign bank accounts and real estate shell corporations.

Arlington Municipal Judge Kathleen Weisskopf found the premise reasonable. People who use sawdust instead of toilet paper might also set up foreign shell corporations. She signed the wildly speculative (and ultimately un-factual) warrant two hours before another judge rubber-stamped the far more thorough code violation and abatement warrant.

The criminal affidavit painted a picture of more than a marijuana business, however. In June, the informant told detectives that Eaker was also collecting weapons. And so Perez asked for and got permission to make the search into a no-knock raid.

The officer wrote that that the chain- link fence at the front of the property could create a “fatal funnel,” enabling the supposedly armed Gardeners to pick off Arlington police officers and code abatement professionals with their rifles.

Shellie Smith is incredulous when she discusses the accusations in the search warrant, especially an imaginary fatal funnel. “The whole place is open,” she said, referring to the hundreds of yards of wide-open space beyond the meditating Buddha and the culinary herbs.

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Early on the morning after both warrants had been signed, the four dozen or so Arlington enforcement troops, mostly police officers, stormed through the chain-link fence, past the “no trespassing” sign, and into the Garden property.

The only inhabitant to see them coming was Eaker, who had woken up early. He called a friend to say that a SWAT team was at the house. He said later that he greeted officers by telling them that two young children were upstairs sleeping and that no one in the house was armed.

Officers handcuffed him, then woke and handcuffed everyone in the house by 7:35 a.m. An armed guard stood watch over the babies while other officers led the adults, one by one, downstairs at gunpoint.

“This guy comes into my room, and he grabs me and tells me he’s not going to hurt me,” Smith said. “He’s telling me … ‘I’m just going to secure the area.’ And I’m thinking, ‘I don’t feel secure. You’re doing a really sucky job.’ ”

Eaker, Smith, and Alrutz were sent to kneel near a rack of clothing. Two live-in garden helpers and two visitors also knelt on the floor under the watchful eyes of the heavily armed officers.

Having never seen the warrant, Smith believed the raid was connected to the code dispute. She had no idea the garden was under investigation as a drug outpost.

Eaker said he “brought everybody into a state of peace” before being taken away in handcuffs. He was jailed briefly over alleged unpaid parking tickets, though he says he has no memory or evidence of said tickets. He says he was kidnapped, forcibly removed from his home without a warrant or due process of law.

Arlington police, in a press release, said the Gardeners were detained for “20 or 30 minutes.” Residents say they have proof that it was more like an hour and a half or two hours. Eaker made a documented phone call at the beginning of the raid, and one of the visitors had set an alarm on his phone for 9:30 — and it went off while they were still handcuffed.

During the in-home detainment, Smith and her friends repeatedly asked for warrants and identification of the officers. They were rebuffed at every request and shouted at to be quiet, Smith says. Police eventually removed the handcuffs and told the detainees they were free to participate in the abatement but not to leave.

Despite an extensive search, police found no evidence of a drug trafficking operation. Or any marijuana use at all.

City workers spent the next eight hours mowing the lawn, though they got tired and did not finish. They also piled and hauled away more than 20,000 pounds of stuff they considered trash, including an old piano.

They sent Smith a bill for more than $5,000 for their services on that day.

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“How could they think that?” Smith said with incredulity about the botched investigation. “If they had helicopters, undercover agents, unmanned drones, then their intelligence is so bad they need not be using it.”

The  Gardeners filed a formal complaint with the Arlington Police Department’s internal investigations team. They were promised a reply in 10 days. Two months later, they received a letter stating that no wrongdoing had occurred.

Surprisingly, Smith doesn’t really sound angry when she talks about being held at gunpoint in her own home over uncut grass and unfounded allegations. She sounds more concerned about the blackberry, okra, and tomatillo plants the Code Compliance crew destroyed. She would also like to continue having friends over for dinner but worries that Arlington might charge her with another misdemeanor.

Terry Nelson is a retired federal customs and border protection agent and also a board member of LEAP, or Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an organization that is critical of this country’s long-running drug war.

“I don’t know how the chief of police can justify that,” Nelson said, referring to the 10-hour raid. He also said that confidential informants are “notoriously incorrect.”

“You don’t use heavy-handed tactics,” he continued, after noting his belief that Arlington usually has a fine police department.

“What we’ve got today is people wanting to be police officers instead of peace officers. A peace officer goes in and tries to fix the problem with a minimal amount of opportunity for violence.”

Matt Simpson, policy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, wouldn’t comment on the specifics of the case. But, he said, “A 10-hour raid seems like a problem. All Texans have some baseline expectation that we’ll be left alone if we’re not doing anything criminal and that law enforcement and other public safety officials will use our tax dollars in a way that makes sense.”

Last fall, Alrutz launched a “Go Fund Me” campaign to help pay for legal costs, both for Smith’s defense and for suing the Arlington Police Department. The Gardeners hint that sufficient legal resources have been offered, but as of this writing, they haven’t raised the $15,000 minimum needed for legal representation. They have opted against suing the city.

They are instead planning to publicly forgive Arlington Code Compliance and police via packets of organic seeds, recipes, and a conciliatory  handwritten letter Smith delivered to city offices on Feb. 27.

“We are taking this opportunity to beautify our space, remedy any/all logical nuisances, provide a visual buffer and facilitate a more rapid transition to truly exemplify the vision of the Garden of Eden,” she wrote in the letter.

“No amount of animosity, anger, or retribution will aid in the resolution of any conflict,” she wrote, and, “Though we are different in many ways, it is our diversity that brings richness to life’s experience.

“I take responsibility … for the part I have played in the misunderstandings,” the letter says, before proposing “a peaceful resolution, face-to-face communication, with a true desire to clarify any confusion and allay all fear and misconceptions.”

Suing “feels like war,” Eaker said last week. “And we are wanting to live a life of peace.”

Eaker estimates that they can feed at least 100 people from the three-and-a-half-acre former lawn. He explains that if only one percent of the people in this country did something similar, we could potentially transform our food supply, our way of life, and our overall health.

“Everything that we’re doing, from my perspective, is gracious, is benevolent. It’s supportive for our fellow men and women,” he said.

The Arlington Police Department declined to comment on this incident or their investigation and internal review processes. Lt. Christopher Cook wrote in an e-mail that this story was “very old.”

Though this incident has been covered from the Ron Paul radio show to the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail, little has changed.

For Shellie Smith, the tale isn’t old news — it’s ongoing. Her jury trial on the misdemeanors is set for March 13. And she still owes more than $20,000 in fines.

She is hoping her letter will be effective and cooler heads will prevail.

As for the officers who held her at gunpoint for several hours, Smith had plenty of time to speak to them on a human-to-human level. She says they told her they were just doing their jobs, had to feed their families, and didn’t know why exactly they were there.

“I’m not harming anybody with what I’m doing,” she says she told them, hoping for legitimate empathy for what she was enduring. “You know you can put your gun down. You can bring your family here, and we’ll feed them. You can come eat at our table. It’s free.”

So far, none of them have taken her up on the offer. She says it still stands.

 

Local author and freelance writer Caroline Collier can be reached at caroline.collier@att.net.


6 Comments


  1.  
    JMT

    Makes my chest tight.




  2.  
    toby

    Thank you for this well-written story. I’d like the option to view and save as a single page for my records.




  3.  
    Fred

    Typical assimilation by force BS. Arlington needs to leave them alone.




  4.  
    Kelly

    If you live in an incorporated city, you’re expected to adhere to basic rules and regulations. I don’t agree with how the City of Arlington has done what they have, but there comes a point at which, if you’re defying an ordinance, you’ve got it coming. It isn’t like this happened overnight.

    The best thing “The Garden” can do is relocate to Oregon. They’ll fight riiiiggght in.




  5.  
    Bill

    These government types..code enforcers need to wake up and smell reality. Everyone likes to think our civilization is so advanced and untouchable..but if you open your eyes, you realize that having the “city” supply your water (pumped with electricity) and electricity, is one huge glaring achille’s heel. Power outage means power outage for a whole neighborhood, or even city. All of these supposed modern technologies are vulnerable to solar flares, storms, or even “oh my god” terrorist attacks. What this farm is doing is intelligent. It’s getting back to basics, and if everyone were doing this instead of trying to impress with their $300,000 homes and phony personalities we might actually become a strong country again. Whether you’re conservative or liberal, certainly you can acknowledge that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and having these “modern conveniences” depends on supply chains, government budgets and oversight and many other factors that are both more fragile than those in power would like to admit and more unsustainable as the urban sprawl continues to stress it. Look at how many water restrictions have been in place in the DFW metroplex over the last few years…if you dig swales in your yard, slow the flow of water, create deep,rich mulch for your beds and do rainwater catchment, you aren’t reliant on these outmoded technologies that worked great when you had a smaller population. The sad thing in this case, is that if the crap really were to hit the fan, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if these same “code enforcers” and yuppie scum were the same sorry jerks begging for food from someone who actually does know how to survive…or worse show up at gun point and take it. All I can say coming away from watching this story from afar is that I’ll not do any business in Arlington because I think it’s shameful the way they treat their residents.




  6.  
    T

    As is often the case, this story of abuses of government authority and taxpayer funded resources belie some other real reasons other than “enforcing city codes” and fighting the so-called “war on drugs.” It is very likely that profit-driven private interests with close connections to the city are really what’s behind this assault on a property owner who they see as being in the way of their profitable plans and must be forced out using all available means at their disposal, namely humiliating them in the eyes of neighbors with the major day long raid and constant patrols by police and code enforcement cruisers that “a person with ordinary sensibilities” would conclude involve major criminal activities on the part of the people owning and living on the property.

    Many of the people owning these RURAL 3-acre tracts are retirees who will be scared by all the perception of “criminal activities” involving violent criminals and likely decide to sell at a discount their increasingly valuable land so they can remove themselves from harm (50 military-style cammandos raiding a house is more force than at the Waco/Davidian compound). The Gardeners will be so bogged down by all the bureaucratic and legal hassles that the City, with all their many resources, have unleashed that they too will likely be forced to sell and move, especially with the crazy amounts of fines reaching the five figure mark, monitoring and harassment, and the energy and time required to defend themselves against actual (and accidental or intentional slipping in of other costly charges that the City clerk acknowledged were going to last a couple of years).

    For those sub-division cookie cutter city dwellers who condemn these gardeners about their code violations, you need to remember that this area is located way out in the edge of the city in a rural area and close to one vehicle junk yard in Arlington, with several more just across the city limit in the next city mentioned in the article. The city has not cared about this area UNTIL developers started to buy up land to create another “exclusive planned community” with a golf course and one subdivision with $300k+ homes squeezed into tiny lots. Just imagine how much more profit (and tax revenues) could be made by acquiring these remaining 3-acre lots and slicing them into teeny tiny lots and erecting 2-3 story houses that consume a lot of energy, especially in triple digit heat (remember heat rises). Yes, they violated some codes, but those codes are meant to urban neighborhoods + none, except one (highly questionable after the many lies made by city officials) of their neighbors even noticed, much less bothered by how they used their property.

    It seems like a well-coordinated pretext to drive the gardeners out while also causing enough fear in their neighbors to get them out as well. I’ve seen this before in Fort Worth when the code enforcement and police raided the house of the family that was fighting to stop a massive gas pipeline from being forced under their and their neighbors’ homes on a residential street. The City was tight with the gas driller and had made all kinds of plans and agreements –until this family stopped them in their tracks and delayed their plan that probably costed millions in lost profit and tax revenue. After they held up the plan in court, some of us living nearby noticed code enforcement making frequent drive bys of those people’s house. A neighbor helping them make improvements on their house–they planned to sell in case they lost in court and didn’t want to live just steps from a 20″ gas pipeline– said they got harassed constantly by code enforcement and even police based on frivolous and often baseless “complaints” that kept them busy (and looking back probably to distract and exhaust them, one of them was disabled we heard) fighting these tickets and letters to “abate” so-called violations, which were mostly treated lumber to replace their porch flooring, backyard deck, and railings. When the city and the gas drilling company got desperate, they terrified that family by bringing about 20 people, including police cars and code enforcement cars that lined the whole block. People were talking about a drug raid for days because of what they saw. We heard later that the police yelled at one parent and their toddler to move their car so they could go wherever they wanted on their property threatening them with losing their car and with violence as they had their hands on their weapons. Neighbors across the street said the man fled in their car with his toddler, barefooted and in their sleeping clothes. The neighbor saw them load up hundreds of dollars, if not more, of new lumber and other valuable construction tools and freely used his water to cool themselves in 103 degree heat. It was scary to see, even from just driving by a couple times a block away for me. The other interesting thing was that the city coincidentally was tearing up that man’s street when the news about the gas pipeline was announced and attracted a lot of tv news coverage, which showed the street and the neighborhood to look much worse than it really worse, which made some of my co-workers to conclude that it was no big deal to put such a huge gas pipeline in since “it’s a dying street anyway.”

    Someone told me that the code compliance department said that they were not targeting that family, which I found laughable since their officers would have to drive right by several properties that were not doing home improvement projects but one was using in plain sight their extra empty lot tas a dumping ground for the trash they hauled off from their construction jobs, another guy was living on a corner house and was “scrapping metal” every day, while two doors down a guy had garbage piled up in a trailer parked in the driveway. Never mind the corner house on my street that was falling down and was used by the old woman’s son as a meth lab and office for his prostitution ring on E. Lancaster. But it didn’t look any of those properties or people were ever bothered because they kept doing everything the same thing for years. I also heard that the family that got raided didn’t even get a warrant or anything for what happened to them. They did stop that dangerous pipeline somehow and moved away soon after.

    The profit-driven developers want those 3-acre lots and the city of Arlington is using the tried and true method of abusing their government authority to traumatize, humiliate, scare, and fine the gardeners and their neighbors to giving up their properties for a fraction of the value so their private corporation buddies could come in and “generate tax revenue” –and a lot of profit..off of private property owners just living their rural way of life for decades. This isn’t too different from the use of eminent domain for private gain in the Carter Avenue pipeline fight involving that one courageous little family. BTW, police are allowed and trained to lie in trying to solve a serious crime or getting leads but lying has become such an integral part of their culture that they lie ofte and in spite of the facts or the law. They need to be sued for violating these people’s civil rights so that they won’t do that to other citizens..INCLUDING THOSE WHO APPROVE OF THEIR TACTICS AGAINST THESE GARDENERS BECAUSE YOU COULD BE NEXT.





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