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Thursday, July 27, 2017 12:08 am

Going fishing on Governor

City, state OK aquaculture project

Randy Jones shows off one of his tilapia that swim beneath a canopy of peppers and other vegetables along the sidewalk in front of his home on Governor Street.
PHOTO BY BRUCE RUSHTON

 

Randy Jones figured he’d gotten the green light in May, when the Springfield Building and Zoning Department sent him a letter: “Per inspector the violations are abated.”

That, he thought, would be the end of his battle with the city, which had cited him in November for building a tilapia tank alongside the sidewalk in front of his home on Governor Street, plus a greenhouse overhead to grow plants that would be fertilized with fish poo (“A fish tale,” Dec. 1, 2016). He was installing greenhouse glass when the notice of violation arrived, followed soon by a second notice stating that he needed to do something about the bricks and wood in his yard, a somewhat natural byproduct of greenhouse construction, in this case, without benefit of permit.

And so Jones took down the greenhouse wherein he had planned to grow fruits and vegetables. The bricks and wood also disappeared. The city dismissed the cases on May 10. And then, it started all over again with a third notice from the city sent two weeks after the violations were dismissed.

The city wasn’t categorical in its May 23 letter, parts of which read more like internal emails than formal notices of violation. “If the tank is dirty and presents a health hazard then this section is a good one,” a zoning inspector wrote. “From the picture I cannot tell if the tank is dirty or not but even if it is regularly cleaned then this section could still be used since it is out in the open.” Translation: Doesn’t matter what you do, you’re screwed. There was also something about an obstruction that might be illegal since it appeared to be taller than three feet and “likely” blocked views from a nearby stop sign, even though no one measured or definitively said that the obstruction, which wasn’t specified in the letter, impaired anyone’s view of anything. Translation: You’re really screwed.

Jones, my former neighbor, had filled his tank with tilapia in early spring, and they were thriving, along with vegetables he’d planted alongside and over the fish. It’s a miniature river, really, that gurgles amid a hydroponic jungle of peppers, beans, cabbage, cucumbers, strawberries, mint, basil and zucchini that dares passersby not to stop and gaze. There’s even a waterfall.

“I’m just an old hippie, why can’t they just leave me alone?” he complained while pondering what he should do. He sent the city a letter asking for clarifications. In return, he received citations and an order to appear in zoning court on July 12. Along with having an illegal obstruction in his yard, the city accused Jones of keeping animals “in a manner which is offensive, nauseous, dangerous to life, limb or property or detrimental to the health and/or safety of the person residing in or traveling through that area,” which likely came as news to kids and their parents who daily stopped to look at the fish and chat with Jones, who handed out vegetables and boasted that his streetside ecosystem was accomplished with just one cup of fish food per day, no pesticides or other chemicals needed.

PHOTO BY BRUCE RUSHTON

 

Shortly before Jones’ court date, a pair of state Department of Natural Resources inspectors paid a visit. Jones suspects the city turned him in. “They showed up here out of the blue, and they knew my name,” he recalls. Public works director Mark Mahoney, whose office includes the building and zoning department, could not be reached for comment.

Instead of citing Jones, the DNR granted him an aquaculture permit. And so Jones now holds one of fewer than 100 permits issued each year in Illinois granting the bearer the right to raise tilapia and other aquatic creatures. So much for offensive, nauseous and dangerous. “They ain’t gonna let you grow fish in a bad manner,” Jones says. “I’m self-taught, bro. To have someone with a biology degree come and check it out and say it’s righteous, it kind of turns you on.”

Despite his state permit, zoning court didn’t go well. Jones was ordered to appear again on July 19 for a hearing – we’ll present our side, you can present yours and a hearings officer will make the call, a zoning official said. In less than a week, though, the city backed off: If you take a 40-gallon aquarium out of your front yard, we’ll forget about the whole thing. And in as much time as it takes to carry a household aquarium 20 feet to a side yard, Jones was in the clear: “Per inspector, violations are abated,” the docket sheet says.

Jones vows never to sell his fish – instead, he’ll give them away to anyone who is hungry. Come winter, he says, he’ll install glass over the fish enclosure with enough room between the glass and the water to grow hydroponic lettuce on a conveyor belt that will move slowly along the enclosure, one foot per day, until the plants reach an opening, at which point they will be ready for harvest. He also wants to plant fruit trees on the planting strip between the sidewalk and the street.

“I’ll ask the city’s permission first,” he promises.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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