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Community garden advocates fight back

CARLSBAD — Resident gardeners at the city of Carlsbad Harold E. Smerdu Community Garden are joining forces to make sure their eight nonresident gardeners don’t get weeded out.When January arrives, the City Council vote goes into effect, which means a nonresident gardener’s annual fee will leap from $60 per year to $350.

Despite the city’s decision, the gardeners are figuring out ways to either raise money or lower costs to keep their gardening community intact. For them, losing their nonresident gardeners is like losing their family.

Currently, there are 52 plots at the garden and eight of them are rented by nonresidents. And at one time, some did live in Carlsbad. Annual fees are for plot and water usage.

Patrice Smerdu, current spokesperson for the Harold E. Smerdu Community Garden, was at the June 21 city council meeting for the final vote. And that decision has cost her many sleepless nights.

“My first thought was that they (City Council) were trying to force out the nonresidents without actually doing that because they know they probably can’t force them out,” she said. “But if you make the price so unreasonable then some of the people will leave and that didn’t sit well with the vast majority of our gardeners.”

After a few days of mulling it over, the group decided it needed to fight back one way or another, Smerdu said. Be it a fundraiser or a Harvest Fair, they will find a way to make up the nonresident rate hike difference.

Don Watanabe, 89, a nonresident gardener since 1986, calls the City Council’s decision a discriminatory one. His love of gardening brings him from his Oceanside condo to the Smerdu Community Garden a few days a week and gives him something to look forward to.

His garden boasts with fruit trees, strawberries, zucchini and more. The rate increase, he said, will be tough on a fixed income.

“I am World War II veteran and here they are throwing me out,” said Watanabe, referring to the City Council’s annual plot fee decision may force him to leave.

Former Carlsbad resident Joe Berbrick has been harvesting his crops at the Smerdu Community Garden for 15 years. Now retired and living in neighboring Encinitas, Berbrick visits the garden nearly every single day.

“One of my biggest enjoyments is gardening,” said Berbrick, 74. Along with fruits and vegetables, Berbrick grows roses and dahlias. In fact, the flowers he grew there were entered at the Del Mar Fair, which won him numerous blue ribbons over the years.

Also on a fixed income, Berbrick admits the annual rate spike will be a challenge. “I will have to make changes in other things I do to afford the difference,” he said.

Berbrick doesn’t mind paying more money, but the way the city went about it was all wrong, he said. According to Smerdu, it’s been years since they’ve had an annual increase.

“The City Council singled us out and it was totally ridiculous,” Berbrick said.

Many of the gardeners feel that the current nonresident gardeners should be entitled to a grandfather clause. The nonresidents gardeners, Smerdu said, should be grandfathered in under the same rules as the rest of the gardeners. For example, in January, new plot fees for residents will increase from $60 to $90.

“And then going forward, any new nonresidents could pay the $350,” she said.

Smerdu said this whole fee hike has been bittersweet. Resident gardeners were facing a new $250 annual fee, but after much protest, it was reduced to $90. Nonresident gardeners weren’t as lucky.

Smerdu is thankful that the increase for all gardeners was postponed until January. But still, she said, City Council members don’t understand the dynamics of the community garden and their deep-rooted friendships.

“When you’ve been working side by side with someone for 10 or more years it doesn’t make any difference to us that they are nonresidents,” Smerdu said. “In fact, nonresident gardeners supported the garden early on — they’ve played an important role since day one.”

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