Anger is growing among the gardeners at the Wattles Farm in Hollywood over a plan to raise fees at the garden by more than 100 percent.
The plan is being instituted by the city Department of Recreation and Parks, with fees at community gardens scheduled to go up on Jan. 1. Currently, residents pay an annual $25 fee for use of the community gardens, where residents can grow fresh fruits and vegetables. After the beginning of the year, the gardeners will be charged a $15 entrance fee, and a $10 monthly fee that will bring the annual total to $135. The fees will apply to 11 community gardens operated under the Department of Recreation and Parks throughout Los Angeles, including the Wattles Farm at Hollywood Boulevard and Curson Avenue.
Andrea Epstein, acting public information officer for the Department of Recreation and Parks, said the fee increase was approved by the department’s Board last summer, and was necessary to cover costs. Epstein said the department has suffered significant reductions in funding because of the city’s budget deficit, and is also now required to pay some additional costs. They include paying the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) for water used at its facilities. Epstein said the new fees will cover the costs of the water used by gardeners, a well as the other costs of maintaining the gardens.
“We are trying to recover some of the fees that have gone up. The Department of Recreation and Parks and the libraries now have to pay indirect costs including the DWP bill, which is $18 million a year for Recreation and Parks,” Epstein said. “Community gardeners are obviously using water, so we are having to charge those fees so we will still be able to provide the service.”
The Wattles Farm is a 4.2-acre site that was opened in 1975 on the former property of wealthy Nebraska banker, Gurdon Wattles, who built a summer home at the base of the Hollywood Hills in 1907. The farm currently has 172, 15-by-15-foot plots, which are taken care of by 297 members who live within a three-mile radius of the garden. Many live in apartments and condominiums and have nowhere else to garden. There is currently a waiting list of approximately 15 people to obtain a plot in the Wattles Farm.
Toby Leaman, a Hollywood resident who oversees the Wattles Farm under permit by the city, said the fee increase has caused great concern among the garden’s members. She said many are low-income individuals who grow fruits and vegetables at the garden as a way of making ends meet. She added that the garden is a place where residents come together socially.
“It will destroy the spirit of the community garden,” Leaman said. “This place provides a social atmosphere, and allows people to have wonderful, healthy organic fruits and vegetables to eat. It really is a community, and I don’t know what is going to happen if the fees go up. Many people can’t afford them.”
Aaron Landy, a resident of the Fairfax District who has been gardening at Wattles Farm since last year, said the garden allows him to follow a healthier diet, as well as reduce stress. Landy mainly grows different types of lettuce, and stops by the garden almost daily to get produce for his dinner salads. Landy added that any fee increase may cause him to think twice about renewing his plot.
“It is a respite from the city, and it has put me a lot more in touch with the food that I eat. I think it has made me ten percent healthier, between eating a salad every night and doing the physical work in the garden,” Landy said. “If they raise the fees, it starts to become borderline. Because the garden takes a lot of work, if it costs a lot more, it begins to be one of those things you weigh against the other things in your life.”
The Wattles Farm is located within the Fourth City Council District, and City Councilman Tom LaBonge said he supports the gardeners and is looking for other options to raising fees.
“I don’t like it (raising the fees), but the parks department has initiated some plans to reduce some of its costs,” LaBonge said. “I am in discussion with the general manager of that department to see if there are some options available regarding the costs.”
LaBonge said he would like to have a program where the fees could be waived for gardeners who are designated as low-income, but no formal plan has yet been created.
“It would be for people who have all the wealth in their heart because of the work they do in the garden, but not all of the wealth in their pockets to pay the fees,” LaBonge said.
Stephen Box, a Hollywood resident who is running for city council in the Fourth District in the upcoming March election, said he is staunchly opposed to increasing the fees for the gardeners. While Box said he does not have a plot in a community garden, he said he has a friend who has a plot at Wattles Farm.
“I live down the road from Wattles Farm and it’s absolutely brilliant,” Box said. “The different types of fruits and vegetables there is amazing. But it is much more than a garden, it’s a place where people come together. Something like that is a cultural asset, and one thing the City of Los Angeles is not good at keeping is cultural assets. Facilities like Wattles Farm should be considered as water reclamation facilities, not places where you have an opportunity to charge people who are enriching the community.”
Epstein said the fees are scheduled to be implemented in January, but the Board of Commissioners for the Department of Recreation and Parks may reconsider the plan at its meeting on Jan. 6. Leaman said the possibility that the fees may be eliminated or changed has given the gardeners new optimism.
“We are hoping that something can be done,” Leaman added. “These fees will devastate the garden.”
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