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Teen wins support for community gardens in Central Beach

STORY BY EILEEN KELLEY, (Week of August 29, 2013)
Photo: Will Tremml and his community garden on Indian River Drive East.

With the poise of a seasoned politician, 17-year-old island resident Will Tremml stood before the Vero Beach City Council last week and eloquently rattled off reasons why the city code should be changed to allow him to maintain a community garden in a residential neighborhood.

Wrapping his hands around an enlarged photograph of a long-abandoned piece of property on Indian River Drive East, Tremml displayed the photo for all to see.

“This is within the law,” he said of the blighted property just doors down from his family’s Central Beach home. Then displaying a photograph of his community garden with just over a dozen 4-by-16-foot beds that he created to grow food to feed the homeless, he said: “And this is my garden and this is outside of the law?”

This growing season yielded five Land Rover carloads of carrots, lettuce, watermelon, onions, okra and berries that were taken to the Homeless Family Center.

The clean-cut Tremml, who received applause numerous times during his presentation when he brought up private property rights, taxes and community service, is on a mission to change the city’s laws regulating what’s allowed within single-family residential neighborhoods.

In his earliest years, Tremml would race through the woods scouting out lizards and snakes. He was such a fan of Steve Irwin, the deceased “Crocodile Hunter,” that by kindergarten, he had picked up an Australian accent. By the time he was in seventh grade at St. Edwards School, he knew one day he would build a community garden.

And so he did, complete with on-site irrigation and buffered behind lush floral landscaping.

“Socrates would argue that it is my moral responsibility to change my city for the better,” Tremml told the council. “I wish to expand the nationwide movement of community gardening. Universities everywhere are touting sustainable programs. It is time to bring Vero up to speed.”

Vero and speed have never been synonymous; maybe that’s why a man named Joe with an Osceola County phone number called the city and complained that Tremml’s garden was violating city ordinances.

Not long after the anonymous complaint, a code enforcement officer rolled up on the garden.

“She was a very nice lady,” said Tremml. “But she said, ‘This really isn’t allowed.’”

Tremml, whose family library brims with not only Roman and Greek classics, but volume after volume of Mother Earth News, then set his sights on the mission of taking on the City Hall.

This by all accounts, could have become Vero’s version of the classic tale of David and Goliath.

But rather than slinging stones, Tremml wanted to work with, not against, the city to make his dream a reality.

“Everyone was saying, ‘Wow, you are going to fight City Hall,’” said Tremml. “The way I look at it, I’m working with City Hall.”

After Tremml’s presentation, City Manager Jim O’Connor told the council he’d like to see the teen achieve his dream.

Tremml turned over paperwork, a full, single-spaced, typed page of regulations under his proposed zoning change. He researched a similar change in zoning regulations in Ithaca, N.Y., to come up with his local proposal.  His next step is to present his case to the city’s Planning and Zoning Board before it comes back to City Council for a vote.

Planning Director Tim McGarry was impressed.

“He’s done a lot of work,” said McGarry.

Neighbor Diana Tucker and her landscaper Lloyd Francis know firsthand about the labor that went into turning the vacant piece of land into a community garden. They watched Tremml and his high school friends build the garden at the start of the year.

“I like it,” said Tucker, who has lived next to the otherwise vacant property for two years. “I think it is a good idea to put the land to work and create something out of that empty space.”

With most of the growing season over, these steamy summer days produce just a few peppers and herbs. After Tremml’s presentation, O’Connor told the teen that effective immediately, enforcement would stop and he could go back to community gardening while the matter is sorted out.

“This garden really looked so pretty,” said Francis, the neighbor’s landscaper.

Butch Coffey, a Central Beach resident who runs down Indian River Drive frequently, agrees. “I like it. I think it is a great idea; what the heck,” he said. “Somebody had to do something with that big open empty lot.”

If Tremml’s project gets the nod from City Council, there could be more community gardens popping up in lots.  Tremml had called owners of three properties for sale on the mainland and asked for permission to turn the lots into community gardens while they’re on the market.

Tremml said all three property owners said yes although that effort has now stalled while the matter of his Indian River Drive garden and an anonymous complaint by a man named Joe plays itself out.

Emily Tremml, Will Tremml’s mother and the owner of Palm House Studio & Gallery, sat in the audience with her own mother when her son rose from his seat and addressed the council.  To say she was incredibly proud of her son for taking on the initiative to grow food and feed the homeless would be an understatement.

“You know you could be mad at Joe, and I was for a while, but honestly, this has been the best thing for us,” Emily Tremml said.  “I think it has brought Central Beach together. Morning, noon and night, people stop by and tell us about their experiences of gardening as kids.”