By Jessica Creagan
VERO BEACH -- Many students at age 17 have their sights set on graduation and enjoying their senior year to its fullest potential with academic honors, sports activities, trips or parties, but Will Tremml, hopes his senior year will involve a lot of dirt under his fingernails.
Will, a senior at Saint Edwards School in Vero Beach and an Eagle Scout, appeared before the Vero Beach City Council last week in response to an anonymous complaint from someone using an out-of-county phone number about a vegetable garden he and others were cultivating and harvesting in the empty lot belonging to his mother in his Central Beach neighborhood.
A city code enforcement officer explained to him that gardens in empty residential lots are not specifically permitted in the neighborhood's zone, which puts it outside of what the law allows, essentially making the garden unlawful, Will said.
Having about a month to prepare his remarks before council, Will presented them with a sample ordinance from Ithaca, N.Y., that allows for urban gardening.
Students at Cornell University in Ithaca have been a proponent of urban gardening, which is one of the reasons Ithaca has the ordinance in place, Will said.
He cited a study that demonstrated property values increase nine percent when they are within 1,000- feet of a garden, and showed large photographs contrasting his garden in full bloom to another empty lot in the same neighborhood.
The city council was supportive of Will's presentation and directed City Manager Jim O'Connor to work with the planning and zoning board to develop a conditional land use to allow gardens like Will's to be created.
The neighbors in the community have not given Will or his family any indication that they are upset with the garden being near their homes, or with the activity it generates occasionally. One of the neighbors is Vice Mayor Tracy Carroll, who encouraged Will to bring his information about urban gardening to the council.
While city staff and the planning and zoning board are discussing a possible conditional land use and permitting system for urban gardens, Will is free to continue gardening, and planting season will begin in mid-September, he said.
Gardening is a hobby that Will is passionate about and has turned into a larger project to help the less fortunate in the community.
Together with other students from his school, Will has formed a community service project called Intercoastal Farms, and the fresh food that is grown in the garden is taken to local soup kitchens and homeless shelters for clients and residents to consume.
The "Intercoastal" part of the name is quite apt as the lot is located quite near to the Intercoastal Waterway.
This past harvest season, more than 75 pounds of lettuce and carrots and other fruits and vegetables were distributed to places like the Homeless Family Shelter in Vero Beach, Will said.
Since January, about 35 volunteers have put in more than 450 community service hours to make the garden a success, he said.
"Most kids really haven't been exposed to gardens, and at first, they seem to think it's like broccoli," Will said.
"They think 'Oh, that's something old people like to do,' but then they get into it and they find it's a great way to blow off some steam, it's good for their health and they come back," he said.
The garden, grown in raised beds, hasn't been all sunshine and roses, but rather a series of challenges that took planning and some elbow grease to get through, Will said.
Being located on the island, there is a lot of sand and salt to deal with and the pH levels have to be monitored for good growth to occur. Finding ways to irrigate everything was another learning experience for Will and the volunteers.
Though many of the volunteers have come from Will's fellow student population at Saint Edwards School, a new branch may soon be popping up at Vero Beach High School, Will said.
"We've had a lot of interest and people are excited about it," he said.
For more information about Intercoastal Farms, visit the Facebook group page at www.facebook.com/groups/240797866055204.