Update on the BrooklynQueensLand Trust,
and our future preservation as a community garden
Where we’ve been…
In 1999, Trust for Public Land (TPL) acquired 62 of the 114 city-owned community garden properties slated for public auction by the Giuliani administration, with Bette Midler purchasing the remainder through the New York Restoration Project. Additional gardens were conveyed for preservation by various means, bringing the total protected by TPL to 70 (?). [Hollenback was purchased by TPL, and is currently preserved through their stewardship.]
With their immediate future secure, TPL began investing enormous amounts of resources in physical improvements to make the gardens safer, easier to maintain, and more inviting for community use. [TPL installed the front iron gate, as well as the city water hook up at Hollenback.] Additionally, TPL has worked with gardeners for nearly 12 years to set up three new non-profit organizations meant to ultimately own and manage the garden properties: The Manhattan, The Bronx, and The Brooklyn-Queens Land Trusts. These three combined would make up the country’s largest land trust protecting community gardens.
What a Land Trust can provide…
The most basic functions of a Community Garden Land Trust are the responsibilities that come with land ownership — property management, infrastructure repairs and improvements, legal support, tax status, insurance, utilities, easement issues, etc.
Beyond those basic functions, a land trust may also choose to provide management support — assisting gardens in need with an occasional labor force, community outreach to get more people involved, and self-management instruction to strengthen organizational governance.
A land trust might offer grants to member gardens for educational and social activities or for improvement projects such as watering systems, fences, or gathering spaces.
Looking beyond the gardens it currently manages, a land trust might advocate for the preservation of more gardens, and negotiate to acquire additional gardens through the purchase or conveyance of properties.
What do we want?
Since the beginning of the garden preservation movement, gardeners have hoped for a land trust option which, while legally protecting and insuring that the land will forever remain as community gardens, allows each garden to have its own garden life and rules, in which the Land Trust has no jurisdiction and does not interfere. Examples of successful Land Trusts in both Boston and Philadelphia offer their gardens this legal protection while leaving gardens to be predominantly self-reliant.
What gardeners want is a Land Trust that shows it truly understands the difference between ownership and management. One that respects input from its member gardens, and acts on their behalf. One that, through an open and transparent process, uses all available forms of communication to share its activities, its financial goals and its decision making process.
Where do we stand now?
Despite nearly 12 years of educational workshops, organizing committees, and more meetings than gardeners care to remember, the properties TPL saved from the auction block have yet to be conveyed to the Land Trusts. So, what’s gone wrong?
For starters, it’s simply taken too long. When asked if she’d consider taking part as one of the resource people on the newly forming BQLT board of directors, Toby Sanchez, instructor of “Forming a Board of Directors” at the prestigious NYU and a proud Brooklyn community gardener at the Campus Road Garden, agreed. But, once she heard TPL’s long range plan would take years to get the group up and running, she withdrew her offer. It seemed to her that TPL was making the whole process more difficult than necessary and were overdoing their role stewarding the land trust process.
Added to that, personality conflicts have slowed or stalled the process for years. As in any community organization, egos can get in the way of progress, and the BQLT is no exception. Past members of the group’s Board speak of mind numbing discussions on the most basic of issues. The only executive director hired by the board fled in frustration, complaining of a top down approach that left her waiting for approval to blow her nose.
But the main criticisms lodged by member garden groups concerns the management style of the board of directors — the lack of transparency, the lack of communication, the lack of organizational integrity and the deep seeded feeling that they’re simply biting off more than they can chew. Rather than being a membership driven organization, decisions are made by the BQLT Board with little or no membership input. Unlike earlier years, when many talented and motivated gardeners were engaged in creating our Land Trust, recent years have seen a BQLT Board whose actions are a mystery and whose Board members are strangers to the memberships of most garden groups.
So where do we go from here?
The joining of these garden groups was not an organic process, instead, they were united as a reaction to a crisis. Groups who would benefit more from alliances with gardeners around the corner are instead asked to work with gardeners from across town. Their needs, their skills, even their reasons for gardening can differ widely, only their need to protect their gardens’ permanence keeps them united.
In the next year, TPL has given BQLT a bit of an ultimatum… though it’s not clear what action they’d take should the group not live up to its demands. By April, 2011, BQLT must be able to prove its ability to show financial sustainability by preparing and operating under a budget in which:
- Income projections are specific and credible
- Income covers expenses necessary to protect and maintain the gardens
- Income and expenses are forecast at least 3 years into the future with no deficit
- The remaining start-up funds ($75,000) are spent over no less than 3 years and held in reserve as long as possible
Support of the gardens must also be tangibly demonstrated, for example by a letter from each garden group endorsing BQLT’s ownership of its garden.
What are our options?
Gardens keep the faith that the group can jump through all the hoops that TPL has put in place to make it up to the standard needed to deserve conveyance.
the wheel’s nearly invented, it would seem the simplest decision to stick with the current group and see this thing through.
enough is enough. The group has lost the confidence of its membership and there’s no hope that it can achieve TPLs goals.
Group can approach Bette Midler’s organization
They seem to have incredible access to resources to keep their gardens looking good.
They’re a completely top down model of garden ownership.
Ask the Parks Department GreenThumb organization to assist your group in conveying your property back into City ownership.
Many feel that the gardens should have always stayed in public ownership. The current administration has shown incredible support for gardeners and there’s been progress in ensuring the preservation and sustainability of gardens for generations to come.
One word. Giuliani. The fear is that a future administration could create another hostile environment and threaten preservation efforts.
4) IndividualLand Trusts
Your group works on its own to create a viable not-for-profit organization that can hold the property and handle all the administration needs.
Keep things inside your own garden gates. Never have to go across town for a meeting, and never have to deal with the crazies in other gardens… just the crazies in your own.
While a group might be able to handle the work involved now, who’s to say that the same garden will have as dedicated a membership in 50 or 100 years who will as carefully steward their organization.
5) BLT (Brooklyn Land Trust)– a new option
Smaller, regional groups have a better chance of success in this process. Groups already united by virtue of their community ties can work together with success.
Reinventing a wheel that’s taken over a decade and still doesn’t roll.