Dispute over tomato garden divides townby Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio
Watson, Minn. — The town of Watson has long been known around the state as Minnesota's goose hunting capital, but recently the community has received some more negative attention after a spat over city zoning ordinances has grown into a feud that has driven deep divisions through the tiny town.
The rancor in Watson is intense and dates back years. In 2007, the dispute helped convince the mayor to resign mid-term, after 9 years in office. These days, most city officials refuse to comment on even the most basic issues in the case.
They explain they're worried anything they say could inflame the divisions in the town. The root of the conflict is a garden located near the highway that splits the community in two.
The owner of the garden is Aziz Ansari. Surrounding Ansari's house are hundreds of plants in long rows.
"I think I've got plenty of tomatoes," Ansari said. "A lot of green ones and red ones; they're in the thousands."
But it's not the amount of tomatoes or cucumbers he's raising that's the problem. It's the way he's growing them. Ansari built four, raised bed gardens around his house. Each is about 18 inches off the ground, six-feet wide and almost one hundred-feet long.
The beds are extensive, but what really catches the eye are the arched canopies above the plants, making them look like a train of covered wagons. Ansari said the white plastic draped over the curved hoops makes the plants more productive. The vegetables are doing well, but Ansari said he's a little behind in his garden chores.
"I'm bogged down with all the paper work," Ansari said. "Writing letters, to the city attorney, to the court, to different attorneys trying to find somebody who'll represent me."
What's eating up his time is dealing with a lawsuit, scheduled for trial next January, that the city filed a year ago over the so-called hoop gardens. Watson officials say the hoop gardens violate several city ordinances.
The city's main charge is that Ansari needs a building permit for the gardens. They also say city ordinances prohibit a commercial vegetable operation in a residential area.
"It's an illegal lawsuit, it's just trying to harass me," Ansari said.
Ansari said there's nothing commercial about the gardens. He said he gives the vegetables away. Much of the food goes to poor people, who otherwise might not be able to afford it. If someone leaves money for the produce, he gives the funds to a church.
Ansari also said there's nothing in city law that requires him to have a building permit for the hoop gardens. The city said there is: specifically, section 2, subdivision 135 of its zoning code. It requires a building permit for 'anything which is built, constructed or erected on the ground or attached to the ground.' Ansari says that's so vague it's unenforceable.
The judge in the case may be sympathetic to that argument. He wrote "the Court is troubled by the seemingly broad definition" of the ordinance.
Ansari said the lawsuit has a more sinister purpose than enforcing city law.
"They're talking about you can't grow vegetables," he said, "but it's not about vegetables, it's about discrimination, that's what it is."
Born in Pakistan, Ansari said pure and simple the city is after him because of the color of his skin. He said he moved to town to enjoy a peaceful retirement and it's been anything but that. He said while many residents support him, there seem to be a few out to get him. Someone broke a window on his pickup, and another person told him to his face he wasn't welcome in Watson.
"One of the guys, he's on record saying 'go back where you came from'", Ansari said.
Ansari fought back and started a Web site. On it he drives home this point: he's prosecuted while white residents who violate city ordinances -- including some city officials -- are left alone. On a drive around town he pointed out a few of them.
On one block is a boarded up house. A building downtown has bare wood walls exposed. He says the properties violate city laws on blight. Ansari pointed out an old unlicensed truck with no engine. He said that violates a city ordinance on derelict vehicles.
"That is clearly telling that they've got different standards for different people," Ansari said. "They want me to abide by the regulations, [but] when it comes to these people, absolutely no problem."
But if Ansari sees clear-cut discrimination, city officials see nothing but a stubborn trouble-maker. None wanted to be quoted for this story, citing the ongoing litigation. But Mayor Jason Avelsgard did answer several questions.
Avelsgard said the city is not singling out Ansari for racial or any other reasons. He said Ansari is not alone in being sued, a couple of years ago the city took another Watson resident to court. He admits there are other zoning violations around town, but said the city is pursuing enforcement.
Although he and other city officials are mostly silent, the inflammatory allegations being tossed around are the talk of the town.
"Where it really hits me is just seeing the division and the hurt that is going on in the community right now." said Rev. Larry Olson, the pastor of a church in Watson.
Olson said residents welcomed Ansari when he came to Watson. Olson, who's also an organic farmer, said he liked to talk with Ansari about growing food, and when Ansari suffered one of several heart attacks, a Watson resident led the effort to help.
"He and another neighbor who's a member of the congregation actually helped carry him down the stairs," Olson said.
Olson said he hears from both sides in the dispute. He said people who considered Ansari a friend are especially upset by his charges of racism.
"So when the label comes up, there's really kind of a feeling of betrayal," Olson said. "From the earlier welcoming, to now their behavior being called racist."
Olson said the dispute has divided the town and in some cases people acquainted for years no longer speak to each other.
"It was unfortunate that it has blown up to be this type of thing," he said.
To former mayor Kylene Olson, the dispute has been allowed to go too far.
"I, at this point, feel that both sides are wrong," Kylene Olson said.
Olson, who's no relation to Pastor Olson, served nearly five terms as mayor of Watson. One reason she left the job was because of the seemingly unsolvable dispute over the vegetable garden.
She said there's no city ordinance on the books that clearly prohibits hoop gardens. Early on in the dispute, she felt the city should leave Ansari and his gardens alone. But now, she feels Ansari also has gone too far, cramming his yard with vegetable plants just to thumb his nose at the city council.
"And I don't think either side is going to win here," she said. "I don't know what's going to happen."
What is clear is that both sides are dug in deep. The two parties have exchanged settlement offers, but so far haven't come close to an agreement.
If the past is a predictor, the feud could escalate more.
Just recently, Ansari raised the tensions another notch. He put up a sign on his property, right next to the highway. The headline on the board says "Stop Discrimination". For now at least, Highway 7 is not the only thing dividing this tiny west central Minnesota town.
- All Things Considered, 09/02/2009, 5:50 p.m.