- The Washington Times - Friday, July 11, 2008

Welcome to Hyattsville, population 15,000, where the downtown looks more like New York City and the neighborhoods more like Iowa.

The City Council this spring passed a law reaffirming residents’ rights to grow vegetables on front lawns. Three months later, some residents have 8-foot-high corn patches in front of their homes, and neighbors say they don’t mind.

“I think some people might consider different types of landscapes unsightly, just like different painting schemes or building additions - which may increase or decrease property values - but it is still permitted by our code,” Mayor William F. Gardiner said.

Residents always have been allowed to grow crops on their front lawns, but many thought such an activity was the same as letting one’s grass or weeds grow too wild and high.

Resident M.A. Sheehan led the charge for the new ordinance - approved April 7 - after returning from vacation to find a city contractor had mowed 10 years of natural growth in her back yard.

“They thought it was just a wasteland and obliterated everything,” she said. “It was pretty devastating and I probably could have sued the city, but I’d much rather do something positive.”

The city code now states that, for occupied homes only, “an area which is actively protected, maintained or cultivated for a use other than a lawn shall not be considered a violation without a threat to health or public safety.”

Residents appear to support the idea, even those living across the street from an 8-foot-high stand of corn in the front yard of a 23rd Avenue residence.

Arnoldo Crisostomo, 47, and his brother, Edwin Sogastome, 38, have grown corn, watermelons, peppers, sugar cane and beans there for the past 2 1/2 months.

“I personally don’t see a problem with someone growing corn in their front yard as opposed to their back,” said Jerry Hampton, director of code enforcement for Hyattsville. Officials also said many of the residents who grow crops on their front lawns are from Latin America.

The tall grass on Ann Barrett’s 2 1/2 acres does not look maintained from a distance. But up close the yard is really a mix of natural vegetation and native wildflowers.

Mrs. Barrett, 42, turned her yard into a meadow, clearing a pathway around her man-made pond, the bench under a tree, and a garden full of organic tomatoes, pumpkins, lettuce, squash, peppers and carrots.

“The law used to be broad and vague and the standard was if someone called and complained, you got mowed,” she said. “I got mowed.”

Meanwhile, the city’s downtown is undergoing a different kind of transformation. Roughly 25 acres on both sides of Route 1 are being converted from mostly aging shops and storefronts into a hip, urban environment.

The project by Bethesda-based EYA Urban Realtors features a mix of homes, shopping, dining and entertainment that includes a circa-1920 car dealership made into a fitness center, juice bar and arts gallery.

The owners of the popular Busboys and Poets cafe in the District’s U Street corridor have committed to opening there, the development group said Thursday. And one section of the project is called the “East Village,” still considered among the hippest of New York City neighborhoods.

“This enhances our diversity,” Mr. Gardiner said. “In one area you’ll find condos and town houses, and in the other you’ll find cultural practices of residents with families from Central and South America.”

The mayor also said about 25 percent of Hyattsville’s population is Hispanic, a 37 percent increase since 2000.

Paula J. Perry was the only City Council member opposed to the front-yard ordinance. Mrs. Perry said she was concerned about a rising rat problem in Hyattsville. She fears overgrown vegetation will become a place for rats to hide, posing health and safety threats. She and other city officials also had concerns about the wording of the ordinance, specifically what is natural versus poorly maintained.

Code enforcers issued 45 citations last month for grass taller than 10 inches.

Mr. Gardiner said the homeowners were not able to maintain their lawns because of heavy rains, not laziness.

Ashley Berger, 14, and her family landscaped both sides of their sidewalk with a mix of cornstalks, bushes and flowers. She said their yard, in the 6600 block of 23rd Avenue, is well-received.

“No one has ever said anything to us about our corn, but my mom don’t really care. She likes it,” Ashley said. “Plus, instead of wasting time going to the grocery store, we just have them here.”

All code enforcers are familiar with the ordinance and issue warnings before assessing fines.

Mr. Gardiner added that people spent a lot of time beautifying their lawns prior to the new ordinance, and over the years residents will see a slow change in landscape and appreciate nontraditional lawns.

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