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Published October 21, 2013, 11:27 AM

Minn. urban farm sows some unhappiness

Neighbors say the farm is out of control and disruptive.

By: Sarah Horner, Associated Press

NEW BRIGHTON, Minn. — From the front, nothing about the house in suburban New Brighton appears that different.

A car sits in the driveway near a flower bed of towering magenta amaranth plants. A small pirate flag waves from atop a picnic table, a nod to the “Peter Pan”-inspired name the women who live here gave the half-acre property when they moved in seven years ago.

Behind the one-story house, however, is a different scene.

There, you see sprawling vegetable gardens, berry plants, bee hives and lots of fowl. A large coop extends from the back deck and houses about 15 laying hens, a dozen quail, a few heritage turkeys, a couple ducks and one Serama rooster. A basket brimming with vegetables sits on a table near a garden bed. Next to it is a bowl full of multicolored eggs.

The collection represents a day’s harvest at “Lost Boys Acre,” an experimental urban farm operated by four women in the quiet residential neighborhood near Silver Lake Road and Interstate 694.

What you don’t see is the tension with their next-door neighbors, a couple in their 70s who have lived in their house for nearly 30 years, allegations of dishonesty and bullying traded between the two households.

The dispute has spilled into New Brighton City Hall with complaints issued to staff and police. Kristie Kellis, 38, the registered owner of the house at 715 Forest Dale Road, says she has contacted the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, as well. State officials, however, cannot confirm active complaints.

Next-door neighbors Bob and Gerry Parrott say the women’s farming is out of control and highly disruptive.

Kellis says the Parrotts are unreasonable and that her property is well maintained. Furthermore, she says it’s within her legal rights as a New Brighton resident to operate an urban farm.

No rules against it

Although New Brighton has a nuisance ordinance, the city has no specific rules regulating the keeping and raising of fowl or other practices associated with farming within its city limits.

Some 60 residents are said to be engaged in the practice to varying degrees.

Prompted by the conflict — now in its second year — the city recently assembled a task force to study how other communities have tackled urban farming, an increasingly popular practice in Minnesota and elsewhere. The committee is expected to make recommendations to the city council next spring.

“We are not looking for this thing to spread,” New Brighton Mayor Dave Jacobsen says of the Forest Dale Road conflict. “We hope the task force can clarify what is reasonable for urban farming before this issue turns our city into a battleground.”

On a recent tour of Lost Boys Acre, Kellis points out vegetables growing in one of the many backyard gardens.

Most of them are planted in raised beds, but this year the women also planted in straw bales to honor the “experimental” part of their mission. The decision to raise quail was prompted by the same desire, Kellis says.

“We experiment with what can be done in a suburban environment so we can educate other people about what works,” Kellis says. She added that it’s increasingly important for people to rethink how they get their food.

The food they produce feeds Kellis and her three housemates, as well as five other families who volunteer at Lost Boys Acre, she says. Additional food is shared with neighbors and friends.

No money changes hands, Kellis says, adding that three of the women in the house have full-time jobs.

Lost Boys Acre started raising birds about two years ago. Kellis describes the animals as relatively quiet and says odor is regulated through the use of a “deep litter” composting method.

Bob Parrott disagrees.

“We can’t really enjoy our backyard anymore; it just depends which way the wind is blowing,” Parrott says. “And then there’s the noise. Have you ever heard a chicken laying an egg? It’s like a woman in labor, and they have about 20 laying hens.”

Runoff, unsightliness

The Parrotts also cite concerns about runoff into a pond behind their house, as well as unsightliness of the women’s property.

Complaints to the city started about the time the birds arrived. Although staff can’t disclose the names of complainants, 11 reports are on file related to Lost Boys Acre, according to information provided by New Brighton City Manager Dean Lotter.

About six reports have been filed with police.

Only once were the women found to be in violation of city code, when a vehicle was parked on an unapproved surface, according to city records.

“Part of the problem here is perspective,” Jacobsen says. “City staff don’t have a calibrated nose to tell what the degree of odor is or how noisy it is at all hours... There’s a lot of gray area here.”

To Kellis, the lack of violations is proof the Parrotts’ beef with her and her housemates goes deeper. She suspects the couple’s real issue is their non-nuclear family and religious beliefs.

Two of the women practice paganism. Kellis says she follows “Earth-based spirituality.”

Kellis points to a time when Gerry Parrott called police claiming a garden statue on the Lost Boys Acre property was an attempt by the women to “point demons at her,” Kellis says.

“They won’t give us one specific thing we can do differently ... I can negotiate with a specific problem, but they won’t give me one,” Kellis says. “They just hate us.”

While acknowledging his wife’s comment showed “ignorance,” Bob Parrott says allegations of bias are attempts to distract from the real issue.

“We’re talking about backyard farming and what is reasonable for a residential area,” Parrott says. “We’re not opposed to it altogether, but to have 20 laying hens, a rooster, plus ducks, quail and turkeys seems way beyond what one household needs. They’re basically running a large poultry business.”

A mediation attempt between the neighbors last winter was unsuccessful. Each side claims the majority of other residents in the neighborhood support them.

Other neighbors surveyed were split.

“They have a lot going on there, but it seems clean and well cared for,” says Chuck Hoffman, who lives down the street. “They’re raising healthy food, which is hard to get at grocery stores these days.”

“It’s easy to be OK with it if you don’t live next door,” says Nancy Nygaard, another neighborhood resident. “I wouldn’t want them as my neighbor. They’ve got too many things going on that don’t belong in this area.”

Cities across the metro area have approached the subject differently.

Some area Minnesota cities — Blaine, White Bear Lake and Coon Rapids — ban keeping chickens. Shoreview allows up to four birds on properties smaller than two acres. Maplewood permits 10 with a permit as long as 100 percent of neighbors are on board. St. Paul requires 75 percent of neighbors to sign off, though it places no cap on the number of chickens allowed. Minneapolis also regulates raising chickens.

Both sides will watch what happens closely.

“A part of me is excited because this could allow for a really progressive conversation about food policy that could make New Brighton a leader,” Kellis says. “But it worries me that the council’s goal is regulation and they want to specifically target chickens.”

Bob Parrott says he hopes restrictions are coming; otherwise, he says he and his wife will move.

“We’re both 70 years old. How many years do we have left and what kind of enjoyment are we getting out of a place if we continuously have the issue of noise and the occasional smell?” he says.

Lost Boys Acre will be around regardless of the outcome, Kellis says.

“If every time someone tried to do something new ... they just walked away when it got hard, we would never have change,” Kellis says. “Someone has to stand up to bullies.”

“I’d say we’re the ones being bullied,” Bob Parrott says.