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Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016 12:07 am

A fish tale

Urban aquaculturist catches heat

Randy Jones spent months building a fish enclosure and greenhouse in front of his home before being shut down by the city.
Photos by Bruce Rushton


Randy Jones, who lives across the street from me, isn’t like a lot of people.

Early last spring, he started digging in the front yard of the house he shares with his wife, Mary, and her mother, Sue Meyer. He spent weeks creating deep pits and long trenches with a shovel and wheelbarrow, a grey-haired man in his 50s moving much dirt by hand. Then he started building what looked like a retaining wall alongside the sidewalk.

This was no ordinary wall. It was hollow, created from many bags of Redi-Mix and two rows of concrete blocks placed a couple feet apart, all fortified with rebar. He’d built it atop Styrofoam sheet insulation and two feet of sand. What was he going to do with that PVC pipe in the yard? Eventually, I walked across the street and asked: What the heck are you doing?

Fish – I’m going to grow fish, he told me. Then he showed me the garage, where zillions of tilapia swarmed in large plastic tanks. Randy is a man of many words, and so we chatted for at least an hour. Fish, collectively weighing 250 pounds or so, would grow inside the hollow part of the 30-foot-long wall alongside the sidewalk, he explained, and the hungry could have all they wanted, free of charge. A greenhouse would go over the whole shebang to create a self-contained ecosystem, with tomatoes and kiwi fruit growing no matter the season, fertilized with fish poop.

He talked about putting in a woodstove to power a geothermal heat pump sort of thingy to keep temperatures just right – don’t ask me how it would work, but Randy seemed pretty confident, and he was open to ideas. When I observed that the tank taking shape along the sidewalk was long enough to hold a full-grown sturgeon, Randy didn’t laugh. He allowed that he could probably make it work. Freshwater clams and other shellfish, he decided, would also be good.

“What I do, you can’t explain to people,” he allows. “How much food can you produce per square foot? I think about all that stuff.”

Randy, who says he learned to grow fish while working at a North Carolina fish farm, didn’t just throw this together, although he pleads guilty to making some things up as he went along. Whenever possible, he scrounged materials, carefully piecing discarded bricks together in rows and circles mosaic-style to fashion the greenhouse floor. Wrought iron doors were added to the plan when he bought a couple from a scrap dealer. Lumber and concrete were purchased with wages from his job at a pallet company and Mary’s work delivering newspapers. As spring turned into summer, he erected floodlights and worked into the wee hours to escape scorching heat.

This isn’t the sort of thing one expects in a neighborhood west of Washington Park, and Randy got plenty of attention. Schoolkids and dog walkers and neighbors stopped to chat and check on progress. When water started flowing in August, rapt children stood peering at the gurgling stream alongside the sidewalk with a waterfall on one end that emptied into a subterranean tank that would be as close as a tilapia, or sturgeon, would ever get to heaven. Windows running the length of the enclosure at eye level for a five year old would let kids see fish and lobsters cavorting alongside the sidewalk when the project was complete. “Do you have fish yet?” youngsters would ask.

It never got that far.

On Nov. 22, as Randy was installing glass on the greenhouse frame, he got a letter from the city of Springfield. He had no building permits, a city inspector pointed out, and this sort of thing isn’t allowed. After asking “what’s going on over there,” visitors to my house had long ago surmised the same thing and wondered how long it would take before someone complained and shut the project down. It took until Randy was a few weeks away from completion.

Ward 8 Ald. Kris Theilen said that he would have turned Randy in if a constituent hadn’t called first. He said that the city had, in fact, been monitoring construction prior to sending the cease-and-desist letter.

“At first, we thought he was just putting in a koi pond and a gazebo, but when he started putting up windows and doors, it was, like, ‘Whoa, dude – you’re not cleared for this,’” Theilen says. “He’s raising animals for food, and that’s not allowed in the city limits in a residential property.”

A few years ago, the city ordered Randy to get rid of tilapia tanks in his back yard, and so he moved them into his garage. Theilen sounded horrified when told that fish have been thriving indoors, like so many clandestine marijuana plants. What about bacteria from fish and disposal of fish poop, the alderman asks.

“He’s been told that this is against zoning, and he keeps going ahead and doing what he damn well pleases,” Theilen said. “This is the problem: The guy doesn’t think it through.”

I’m not sure about that. The stream alongside the sidewalk seems to gurgle just fine. I’m no expert, but Randy’s plan to feed fish poop to red wriggly worms, then use the enriched soil to grow plants sounds good. And I never would have known there were tilapia living across the street if Randy hadn’t told me. He’s not sure what will happen now.

“I’m just trying to figure out any way to keep it moving forward,” Randy says. “I used every building technique to the best of my ability.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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