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Our View: Ohana Kuleana

Community garden should be saved

This past Saturday, Ohana Kuleana Community Garden held an open house that by all reports was well-attended. As you will recall, the garden is facing the possibility that it will be sold by its current owner, Bob Lieb, who was its instigator and has long supported the garden in many ways.

City Council heard a presentation and request by the garden’s members in July to purchase the property but took no action. Mayor Kim Baxter said the proper channel was through the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, but nothing has evolved there, either. Time’s a-wastin’, as the property near 30th Street and East Fifth Avenue, adjacent to Riverview Elementary School, could soon lure a developer.

About 100 people regularly use the community garden, which has 45 plots and serves as an educational resource for the school. Students plant, tend and harvest food from their six plots in the garden, which becomes part of lunch menus at the school cafeteria. They also interact with community members who garden and learn about nature, food production and economics in the process. Excess produce is donated to the community through La Plata Family Center.

So what’s the problem? Why shouldn’t the city buy the garden to keep it going?

The proposition is more complex than it appears. First is the expense of the purchase. Next is the fact the garden does not serve all Durangoans, but only a relatively small number of people. And although membership in the garden is open to all on a space-available basis, people who don’t live nearby are unlikely to be able to take advantage of it.

Even if all such issues could be resolved in an equitable manner, Parks and Recreation has an existing list of projects it has prioritized. How would the board justify moving this one to the top of the list?

Still, the idea that this garden might be shut down by a developer is sad because this situation did not have to occur. The county and the school district owned the property in the past and bungled a deed restriction that should have protected it. (This is the second time in as many weeks that we’ve found ourselves writing about unforeseen outcomes of local governmental decision-making resulting from officials lacking historical information. Hmmm.)

Frankly, this is not a situation where we can confidently suggest Plan A or Plan B as the ideal solution. Yet we are absolutely and enthusiastically in support of community gardening in general and especially when schoolchildren are involved.

School District 9-R has community gardens at multiple schools. Usually, the longevity and success of these gardens are dependent on individual dedicated teachers who nurture their organization and growth. In addition to Riverview’s participation in Ohana Kuleana, Needham Elementary, Animas Valley Elementary and Escalante Middle School have gardens used for educational purposes.

We’d like to think that Parks and Recreation could come up with the money to save Ohana Kuleana Community Garden. (In fact, recently retired Parks and Recreation Director Cathy Metz had indicated she would try to make that occur.) Failing that, we’d love to see a community benefactor offer to fund it. In either case, it could be properly deeded to the city as a garden in perpetuity – which should have happened decades ago.

The idea of pairing school gardens with community gardens in a public-private partnership that benefits everyone checks all the boxes: sustainability, science education, intergenerational connection, nurturing of young people, battling climate change, proper land stewardship, and more. City and school properties should be inventoried for additional potential garden sites. Grants could be sought from national nonprofits such as the Trust for Public Lands.

Ohana Kuleana – which means community responsibility in Hawaiian – was Lieb’s choice of names for the garden. He and the hundreds of adults and students who have tended it for the last 18 years have certainly demonstrated their commitment to that principle. It will be a shame if Durango can’t do its part to keep it growing.