Newton officials call tomato display illegal
NEWTON - Eli Katzoff started out with a simple plan to grow some tomatoes at home.
That was before the engineering plans, the kebab-stick model, the 16-foot long wood planks, the website, and the ad-hoc community garden/charity.
Katzoff’s idea, on display in the front yard of his childhood home near Route 9, looks like an oversize swing set, stretching 13 feet high. Thirty-four red buckets with tomato plants poking through the bottom hang from the beams. From afar, it resembles a string of red Chinese lanterns in the heart of suburbia.
The only problem, according to Newton city officials, is the entire structure is also illegal.
“It’s a straight-out violation of the ordinance,’’ said John Lojek, the city’s commissioner of inspectional services.
Katzoff, 26, needs to voluntarily remove the tomato plants as well as the structure or the city will send him a notice of violation, Lojek said.
The tomatoes “will never come to fruition,’’ he said.
Newton prohibits any accessory structure in the front yard, Lojek said. No swing sets, swimming pools, or sheds. And Katzoff’s A-frame garden structure falls into that same category, Lojek said.
Lojek and other city officials met with Katzoff last week to talk about the garden. Lojek said he understands the extensive work that went into building the structure, but that Katzoff either needs to get a special permit for it or could face a fine of up to $300 a day for the violation.
Katzoff, who plans to contribute much of the crop to local food pantries and has sold other plants to neighbors and friends who want a steady supply of summer tomatoes, said the permitting process will take too long and force him to miss out on most of the growing season.
Katzoff said he called the city about two months ago to find out if the garden would require any special permission. He said he spoke to an inspection staffer who said it would not be a problem.
Then, a few days ago, a city worker came by to take a look after getting an inquiry from a neighbor.
Lojek said the staffer only thought Katzoff was putting up a few hanging baskets. She also did not have the authority to approve the plan, he said.
While no neighbors have called to complain about the hanging garden yet, they may, Lojek said.
The city is also concerned about the safety of the beams and any precedent that it may set for front-yard structures.
Perhaps Katzoff can find an alternative location for his garden, such as open space near some city park property, Lojek said.
Newton officials briefly considered whether the structure could count as a sukkah, a temporary hut meant to commemorate the Jewish harvest holiday Sukkoth. A sukkah can be put up in Newton, but only in the fall, during the festival.
“I would have loved to have found a clever way to let them do it,’’ Lojek said. “There’s no path for them.’’
Still, Katzoff is not giving up easily. The promotional filmmaker, who is staying at his parents’ home while they are on an extended trip to Israel, has become passionate about the garden. What began as an effort to grow tomatoes without interfering with his father’s ground-level garden has grown into something bigger.
Katzoff launched a website to demonstrate how the garden works and is filming the process for a short documentary. He also started to build an intricate hose system, tied to the beams, to water the tomato plants.
“It’s been an adventure,’’ Katzoff said.
Barbara Gaffin, a neighbor, has already bought a few of the plants and supports Katzoff’s effort.
Front yards can be very staid, said Gaffin, and Katzoff’s father used to put sheep and butterfly ornaments in his front garden that added a touch of whimsy to the neighborhood.
Katzoff is following that tradition and letting the neighbors participate in the garden, she said.
“It’s kind of like, if you’re going to have a loud party, you should invite your neighbors,’’ Gaffin said.