The short version:
We bought an amazing home and new farm property in a more rural part of Athens in September 2018. It's perfect for a small vegetable farm, and it's a beautiful place to raise our twin boys, but it's in a neighborhood with a homeowner's association. Before we bought the property, we requested and received approval from the HOA board for a non-residential use and to use the property to run the farm.
In December, shortly after we moved in and started planting, a newly elected HOA board attempted to reverse the HOA’s prior approval, demanded that we stop farming the property, and threatened legal action against us if we continue. Shutting the farm down and selling our new property after we've invested everything we have, and more, in its startup would bankrupt us.
We have met and spoken to most of our new neighbors about our situation, and the majority of them support the farm. We tried for months to keep lawyers out of it, but the new board continues to oppose the farm, and we have just received a "cease and desist" letter from the HOA’s attorney. We now have no choice but to hire an attorney to protect our family, our livelihood, and our farm, but we have nothing left after investing in the farm’s startup costs including a deer fence and our spring crops which are already in the ground.
We have a great house, farm, and adorable, healthy 15-month old twin boys - the last four months should have been some of the happiest of our lives - but instead we are overwhelmed with anxiety about our uncertain future. We spend all of our limited free time writing emails to our neighbors, wondering why people who don’t know us want to harm us, and worrying if we may be forced to sell and lose everything. We must now turn to our wonderful Athens community for help to keep Diamond Hill Farm - one the largest producers of organic vegetables for the Athens Farmers Market and Collective Harvest - in business, to help keep Carter and his four farm apprentices employed growing beautiful, clean produce for Athens, and keep our family afloat. We'd appreciate anything you can contribute to our unexpected legal expenses, or your help spreading the word by sharing a link to this page. Thank you.
Here's the long version:
Last summer, a few months after our twin boys were born, we realized we'd outgrown our house and our 1.5 acres of vegetables on our small property in Hull. After several months of searching, we found an amazing home and property on the Eastside of Athens to start a larger farm. The property is almost 9 acres, has a great house, is perfectly set up to be a profitable farm, and best of all is right in Athens-Clarke County in a good school district. The property is located in a rural area on the Eastside of Athens in Shoal Creek Farms, a beautiful, quiet subdivision off of Morton Road. As you can see in the photos, it is surrounded by various land uses, including pasture. This area of ACC is zoned Agricultural-Residential, which ensures that farming, pasture, forestry, as well as single-family residential use can co-exist while protecting scenic and environmentally sensitive resources. Our property is at the entrance to the neighborhood (right behind the entrance sign that says “Shoal Creek FARMS”). It sat on the market for almost two years before we bought it - probably because there are few practical uses for a small open field located on a fairly busy rural highway (except a small family vegetable farm).
Since we moved in in October, we’ve built a fence for our dogs, built an eight-foot deer fence around five acres for the vegetable farm, planted several thousand dollars worth of trees and shrubs around the deer fence to screen it from the neighbors, planted several fruit trees, 3,000 strawberry plants, 10,000 garlic plants, 25,000 onions, ½ acre of potatoes, and about two acres of spring crops including carrots, beets, all types of spring greens and lettuces, radishes, kale, and more. The previous owner had let the large field and yard become overgrown and unkempt, but now the farm is looking great, planted with our various spring crops.
Shoal Creek Farms is governed by a Homeowners Association. We met the HOA board in July 2018 before we ever entered into a contract to purchase the property, and presented a detailed proposal for a non-residential use of the property, namely, to run our organic farming operation. Our proposal explained our intentions to cultivate about five of the nine acres in organic fruits and vegetables for off-farm sales. We stated that the farm would require a deer fence, a well, hoop houses for season extension, and seasonal employees in order to be profitable. Finally, our proposal stated that we would not purchase the property if the HOA board would not approve our request to operate a farm on the property.
The HOA board has always understood our plans and, like many Athens residents would, saw the potential benefits of having a small neighborhood organic farm. They also understood that we would not purchase the property unless we received HOA approval. We were so excited when the HOA board approved the farm by a vote of 4-1! The board did ask a few things of us: that we not erect a sign, not provide on-farm sales to the public, not have livestock, and keep our property looking neat and tidy, and we agreed to abide by the HOA’s covenants. We relied upon the board's approval, and moved forward with the purchase. The board's vote was recorded in the approved board meeting minutes for July 2018. In August 2018, we received a letter of written approval from the board president confirming that the board voted in favor of the farm, and with a promise to work with us to make sure we could operate the farm within the HOA covenants. With the understanding that we had HOA approval to use our property to grow organic fruits and vegetables, and with the encouragement of the board, we moved forward with closing on the property in September. Next, we requested and quickly received written approval from the HOA board to construct an 8-foot deer fence around the future vegetable garden.
In October, shortly after we moved in and completed the deer fence, the annual HOA board election took place and new members took office. The old board had already approved our deer fence, and the next step was to submit our hoop house locations for approval as we had promised. Hoop houses are simple structures made of metal "hoops" covered with a thick plastic film that serve many functions, most importantly to provide season extension by protecting crops from frosts during the spring and fall. We needed to have the hoop houses built by the end of December so that we could start our early spring crops and our spring seedlings. Carter attended the November board meeting to provide the new board members with more detail about his plans for the hoop houses. At that meeting, it became clear that the two new board members were not happy about the previous board’s approval of the farm. Carter promised to resubmit his hoop house proposal with more detail after the November meeting and await approval.
In December, with no warning or further communication from the board, we received a letter from the HOA attorney stating that the previous board’s approval for the farm was withdrawn. We contacted the board to clear up what we assumed was a misunderstanding, and were told they could only communicate with us via the attorney. We were extremely confused as to why our own Homeowner’s Association was refusing to communicate directly with us, its members. We were heartbroken, devastated, and had no idea what we had done to warrant this abrupt change in the board’s attitude towards us and the farm – we had been polite, friendly, and transparent about our plans, and hadn’t violated any of the neighborhood covenants. We immediately consulted an attorney friend of ours who was certain that this withdrawal was unlawful since we clearly received written approval, and relied upon that approval to purchase the property. We already had our strawberries, garlic, onions, beets, and carrots in the ground by then, and what remained of our previous season’s revenue was already invested in the deer fence, landscaping, and spring plants. Our initial investments amount to almost $30k, much of which is borrowed. We expected to be able to quickly recover the money and repay our debts with sales of spring and summer produce, so were extremely worried about our ability to recover financially when we received the “withdrawal” letter from the new HOA board.
We spent the holidays with our family in our new home, wondering what would happen next and if we would be able to stay. Nothing happened until mid-January, when the board Chair resigned and was replaced by our neighbor Sharyn Dickerson, former ACC commissioner and current city administrator for Watkinsville. We immediately contacted Ms. Dickerson to explain our family’s financial dependence on the farm revenue, how far behind we were for the next season since the board had not approved our hoop house locations, and how we wanted to quickly resolve what was surely a terrible misunderstanding. We also met with a large group of our new neighbors who were supportive of the farm and concerned about the new board’s actions – some of them agreed to speak with Ms. Dickerson on our behalf. Many neighbors wrote to the board voicing their support for our farm. To our knowledge, Ms. Dickerson did not respond to any communication from us or from our supportive neighbors. A couple of days later, she held an “informational meeting” about the farm for the entire neighborhood in which she presented misleading and untrue statements about our previous discussions with the board (she held this meeting without ever having met or spoken to us). Ms. Dickerson gave the neighborhood only two days’ notice for this meeting, and it took place on a Sunday afternoon when we had family in town to celebrate our twins’ first birthday. We left our first children’s first birthday party early to attend this meeting and listen to someone we had never met misinform the neighborhood about our intentions, and explain how the board was going to proceed along a course which would result in our financial ruin and in the loss of our new home, for which we have saved our whole careers. It was awful.
After the January neighborhood “informational meeting,” it was clear that the new board, led by Ms. Dickerson, was resolved to stop us from continuing to farm our property. By the end of January we had met many of our neighbors who were supportive of the farm, or who at least were opposed to the board’s reversal of approval, since they understood that we had secured board approval, and recognized that we could not afford to stay in our home without farm revenue. At this point many of our friends and neighbors suggested that we seek further legal counsel, but by then we were so far behind on starting our spring seedlings that we knew the lost revenue would make hiring a lawyer financially impossible. We hoped to resolve the situation by continuing to talk with our neighbors. We made one last effort to settle everything within the neighborhood by holding a neighborhood vote.
In February, many of our new neighbors called a "special meeting" of the neighborhood association to hold a vote on whether the new board should:
1. Stop using paid legal services associated with the opposition to the farm (i.e. communicate with us directly instead of through an attorney), and
2. Stop opposing the farm and instead cooperate with us on the location of the three hoop houses we needed to operate our farm.
The neighborhood voted Yes to both questions by a clear majority.
After the special meeting, we submitted our hoop house proposal to the board for the third time and attended the February board meeting. The board continued to stall and did not approve the hoop house locations, but promised to give us an answer after the March board meeting. The March board meeting took place on March 28, and on April 8, we received a “cease and desist” letter from the HOA attorney. Based on the contents of this letter, we can only conclude that Ms. Dickerson and the board are refusing to follow the vote of the majority of the neighborhood by continuing to spend the association’s money on an attorney, and have no intention of approving our hoop house locations or acknowledging the previous board’s approval of the farm.
To say the least, the last four months have been an extremely stressful and difficult time for our family. The early spring is usually the most exciting time of the year for a small farm. This year it’s been difficult to engage in the renewal of the growing season – since we couldn’t build our hoop houses, we were unable to start our vegetable seedlings on time, and have therefore lost thousands of dollars in potential revenue this spring. We even dropped out of the Wednesday Athens Farmers Market at Creature Comforts this season because we won't have enough food to support two markets a week in addition to our contribution to the Collective Harvest Farm Shares.
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably asking yourself, “Who wouldn’t want a small organic farm in their neighborhood?” So are we! We just can’t understand the opposition we are receiving from a few residents. We have demonstrated ourselves to be kind, educated and professional throughout all of our interactions with all of our new neighbors. Most of our new neighbors have been welcoming, supportive, and kind in return – some have started shopping at the Athens Farmers Market.
You’re probably also asking yourself why we would stay here, rather than selling our home and moving on. First of all, we can’t sell. We invested our life savings in a home and farm that has amazing potential to be a beautiful small community farm. We then invested every penny in startup costs. We cannot afford to leave. We have already incurred over $9,000 in unbudgeted legal expenses (money that was set aside to drill a well for the farm). Second, we really love our new property and our new neighbors. In the short time we’ve lived here, we’ve been welcomed into the wonderful community of Shoal Creek Farms. Unfortunately, the current board is acting in opposition to the majority of the neighborhood and is determined to hurt us. Finally, if we left, we would no longer be able to grow clean food for Athens. This property has the potential to produce an enormous amount of food that our community needs. Conventional agricultural practices are a major contributor to the declining state of our environment, climate, and the health of Americans. Small farms like ours that use organic, sustainable growing practices that work with nature rather than against it are part of the solution. Athens, and the world, are in dire need of more sustainably grown food that is sold and consumed locally.
We can’t recover this season’s losses in revenue but with your help we can keep our home and continue to grow our new farm to provide Athens with delicious, clean, beautiful produce. Any funds we raise will go towards our unexpected legal fees. Thank you for reading our story and for contributing or sharing a link to this page. We hope to see you at the farmer's market soon.
- Kerry Echols
- Tim Blackwell
- Jaime Collazo
- Serena Tremlett
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