Potatoes for People may face trespassing charges
By Markham Hislop
Alderman John Mar is coming under fire from residents in Ward 8 for his role in attempts to shut down a community potato growing effort on 17 Ave. S.W.
Sunday afternoon, police and bylaw officers arrived at a vacant lot where local residents calling themselves Potatoes for the People had gathered to plant potatoes in an effort to spruce up the area and provide food for the Inter-faith Food Bank and the Calgary Drop In Centre.
Organizer Donna Clarke says Mar was a passenger in one of the police vans. When she walked over to introduce herself, she says Mar wasn’t interested in talking to her about the project. In fact, she says he never left the vehicle during the time she was being warned by police that she had 24 hours to remove her potato-growing equipment, which consisted of brightly painted tires and plants.
“John Mar is the city councillor for this area and this is his response to people trying to improve the neighbourhood,” said Clarke.
Mar acknowledges that he called police about what he thought might be people drinking or using drugs. He says he knows the land is privately owned and the people he saw likely didn’t have permission to be there. Police initially had trouble finding the lot, so Mar volunteered to ride along and show them.
He says he was happy to shake Clarke’s hand, but didn’t feel his obligations extended beyond saying hello.
“I was actually then in a meeting with the authorities. I don’t know why if I’m doing something else I don’t have a moment to learn about her project that’s on someone else’s land,” said Mar.
Mar is a former member of the RCMP and says he is concerned about safety issues within the ward, which encompasses much of the downtown core and beltline district. Clarke and the Potatoes for the People volunteers were trespassing, he says, and did not apply to City Hall for permits or advise the City that they intended to occupy the lot.
“The issue here is strictly that they chose to do it (planting potatoes) on land that doesn’t belong to them,” he said.
Clarke doesn’t see why such a big deal is being made of planting a few potatoes on a vacant lot, regardless of who owns it (she believes it belongs to a bank, but neither she nor Mar could confirm the identity of the owner). She says the lot is next door to her house and over the past few years has grown tired of seeing nothing done with the property.
“The soil is not ideal so I thought that potatoes would be ideal to repair the soil. There is room for lots and lots of potatoes,” she wrote on the Facebook page she set up to promote the project.
Bylaw officers issued Clarke a notice ordering her to remove “accumulation of prohibited material or garbage.” She takes issue with the characterization of the tires and potato plants as garbage.
“These are beautifully painted tires…there are pictures of the property before and after, and before we started painting the tires, this was not garbage that was accumulating,” she said.
Calgary is a big supporter of community gardens and urban agriculture, including providing funds, said Mar, and Clarke is welcome to apply to start one on an approved area, which includes City-owned property. There are already several community gardens in the ward and the two-term alderman says he would like to see more.
Clarke says City Hall bureaucracy and red tape are onerous for a small group of community volunteers, and that starting a community garden doesn’t solve the problem she set out to tackle in the first place, the improvement of the eyesore next door to her house.
In addition to painting tires to hold the potato plants, Clarke and her volunteers also repaired and painted a fence on the property. She says 40 to 50 area residents stopped by to admire the group’s handiwork and express their support.
“I don’t want to hide it in someone’s yard. It’s about growing community and reclaiming derelict spaces. It’s not about hiding an individual initiative, it’s about community initiative,” said Clarke. “And the response is a crackdown from City Hall.”
Even if Clarke removes the tires and avoids the bylaw infraction, she may be facing a stiffer penalty. Duty Inspector Mike Tillotson confirmed that the Calgary Police Service will be contacting the property’s owner to determine if they want to press trespassing charges, which is standard procedure when someone has unlawfully entered a property.