Take a walk in just about any St. Paul neighborhood in the summer, and you'll find pots and raised garden planters full of vegetables, annual flowers and native prairie plants on boulevards, the strip of land between the street and the sidewalk.

These raised planters weren't technically permitted to be there, until this year.

In December, the St. Paul City Council passed changes to the city's ordinance, prompted by former Ward 3 City Council Member Chris Tolbert learning these commonplace plantings were not allowed. The changes took effect this year.

"The impetus behind it was to just allow people to apply for a permit to do it. Because I think, quite frankly, a lot of us thought you could," he said.

Boulevard access

St. Paul cares about what's planted on boulevards because the city needs to be able to access utilities such as underground water and gas lines, fire hydrants, lights and electrical boxes.

Though they weren't allowed on paper, raised-bed planters often sat undisturbed by the city for years because St. Paul's enforcement system is complaint-based, meaning the city only takes action on compliance issues if someone complains.

They rarely caused actual issues, Tolbert said.

When St. Paul resident Victoria Downey installed raised planters in her boulevard in 2020, she checked the ordinance and assumed the planters were allowed since it didn't say they weren't. She contacted Tolbert, whose office took on the issue of amending the ordinance, after being told last May that her raised planters were out of compliance.

Downey had moved her beds to the side yard, but she said she intends to move them back to the boulevard.

"Hamline Midway, like a lot of areas of St. Paul, we have such small lots and so there's just not a lot of space," Downey said. "Depending on your sun availability, you may not be able to grow whatever you're wanting to grow anywhere but the front."

New permit for planters

Under the new rules, residents must obtain a $20 boulevard encroachment permit for raised planters. Other than that, many of the rules — such as height — are similar for raised planters as in-ground plants, which do not require a permit.

Apart from height and spacing, planters must be removable. No boulevard plantings can include noxious weeds. Herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers are prohibited without city permission, and anyone with a boulevard garden must document calling Gopher State One Call for utility locations before digging. Plantings can't interfere with utilities or trees, among other requirements.

If the city receives a complaint and finds a boulevard garden out of compliance, it typically sends a letter and gives the property owner a week to fix the situation before sending a crew to remove it and/or fining the property owner, said Richard Kedrowski, a supervisor in code enforcement.

The city can remove boulevard plantings to access utilities, and isn't required to repair any damage except to restore the boulevard back to grass, under the ordinance.

That has frustrated Rachel Wiken, a Mac-Groveland resident who lost her boulevard garden when the city removed a tree. She managed to transplant some plants because she had been in contact with the city about the tree, but couldn't move them all and said other residents might not get much of a heads-up.

"They came through ... with a Bobcat and they just crushed everything. Anything we didn't move got ruined," she said. She said she hopes a permitting process allows more notice.

Department of Safety and Inspections spokesman Casey Rodriguez said in an email that the city attempts to communicate with residents about scheduled work, but since the boulevard is in the public right-of-way, there may not be advance notice, especially in the case of emergency work.