Summit Avenue church garden harvests dissent

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 8, 2011 - 10:00 PM

House of Hope in St. Paul wants to keep what it built, but some neighbors object.

Not every fence makes a good neighbor, say a couple of disgruntled residents near House of Hope Presbyterian Church on St. Paul's Summit Avenue.

Volunteers and parishioners planted a garden early this spring and erected a 78-inch-by-34-inch galvanized steel and cedar fence to keep out rabbits. The Rev. David VanDyke said the aim was to feed the hungry and to bear witness to their plight with a visible garden in an affluent area.

But along with 1,000 pounds of produce for a West Side food pantry, the church at 797 Summit Av. has harvested dissent.

Although the church received City Hall authorization for the fence in May and began construction within a couple of weeks, two activists formally questioned its historic authenticity.

In late June, Shari Wilsey of the Summit neighborhood and Susan Foote of Crocus Hill appealed the city's decision allowing a permit to build the fence. Their dispute with the church remains stuck at City Hall without resolution.

Council Member Melvin Carter III, who represents the area, has been unable to resolve the dispute, and his latest idea seems unacceptable to the church.

Wilsey and Foote didn't return calls to their homes last week. At a City Council public hearing in July, only Wilsey spoke against the fence while several other neighbors spoke for it. In their written appeal, the neighbors said the fence should be replaced or the garden torn up and moved behind the church.

'Historically inappropriate'

In July, Bethany Gladhill, president of the Summit Avenue Residential Preservation Association, sent a letter to city staff condemning the fence. She said if an approved fence is not possible, the fence should be removed or the garden planted elsewhere. "We are unanimously opposed to the corral-style fence surrounding the garden. We believe it historically inappropriate," Gladhill wrote.

The church also submitted numerous letters of support. Church supporters argue, among other things, that nothing could be more historic than a garden in an area that once was farmland.

Van Dyke said the garden has become a gathering spot and testament to the less fortunate. "We feel it's not only our right but our responsibility to declare such a witness," Van Dyke said. "We're hardly an eyesore."

He noted that a house just east of the church has a chain-link fence with a "Beware of Dog" sign on the gate.

A wrought-iron alternative?

At a meeting in August, the City Council deferred a decision, allowing the church to keep the fence through the growing season while Carter tried to resolve the conflict.

The item is again on the agenda for Wednesday. "My hope is we'll be able to get final resolution," Carter said. His solution: a wrought-iron fence or a replica of one. The catch: Carter needs at least $10,000 for the new fence.

Van Dyke rejected the proposal, thinking it would make the garden look like a cemetery.

The fence is visible to pedestrians, cyclists and drivers on Summit, although it is partially camouflaged with natural grasses and brush. Van Dyke said the church has offered to plant more shrubbery.

Furthermore, Van Dyke said removal of the fence, whose posts were installed in concrete footings, would destroy the garden. He noted that the church got appropriate approvals before it began digging and shouldn't be compelled to rip up its work because a few residents oppose it.

"I think we've been very reasonable," he said. "In this day and age it just seems, frankly, mean and small-minded to be attacking a church that had permission and is feeding the hungry."

Rochelle Olson • 651-925-5035 Twitter: @rochelleolson

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