Summer on Truman Avenue presents a certain predictable chain of events.
An elderly man digs up his streetside park strip and plants a garden. His neighbors get mad and call City Hall. A city code-enforcement officer cites him for breaking landscaping laws. The gardener invokes the name of God, the city waves its book of zoning ordinances at him, reporters show up.In time, the controversy fades with the season.
This year 78-year-old Thomas Truman Cope will go to court, however, charged with a misdemeanor crime for growing potatoes, tomatoes, cabbage and broccoli in the narrow strip of ground between the sidewalk and street in front of his house at 234 Truman Ave.
He says he doesn't have a lawyer and will plead not guilty at his hearing Monday before a city magistrate. That means a jury trial could ensue.
"The problem we run into is: `What about all the other people?' " City Attorney Clint Balmforth said. "I'm not necessarily in favor of the rules, but I'm a homeowner too, and I follow them. It's the principle of the thing."
Last year, after threatening him with a $700 fine and possible jail time, the city adopted an appeasement strategy that let Cope harvest his garden with the hope he wouldn't plant it again.
But Cope said he couldn't resist, given the divine design by which he says he lives. "The prophets have told us to till the soil and plant."
The City Council last year considered rewriting the landscaping ordinance in question but decided not to because it would've required a tedious process of public hearings and bureaucratic adjustments.
"We spent 18 months putting that ordinance together," said City Councilwoman Holly Carson, who added she thinks Cope has been ungracious and ungrateful.
"The city has been good to this guy," she said, noting that in 1983 Cope was the recipient of a $11,261 city-sponsored, interest-free home-improvement loan he doesn't have to pay back.
"We recoup the amount used for the rehabilitation at the time the house is sold or changes hands," said Jonnalyne Walker, director of community and economic development.
Cope, whose local reputation as a City Hall gadfly is considerable, admits his fight is rooted partly in spite. One household of neighbors that have made noise about his garden is refuses to trim a sun-blocking hedge beside garden space in his back yard, Cope said.
Carson said the dispute is caused in part by Cope's thirst for theatrics: "He likes the attention."
And Walker, who said Cope has "full faculties," said he also sports a flair for the dramatic.
"When he has a statement to make, he's very visible."
City officials remember well the time Cope was escorted from a City Council meeting because he wouldn't end his speech against a proposed pay raise for council members.
Cope said he won't be silenced this time.
"It's my obligation and duty to show and tell people how absolutely easy it is to take food from the soil.
"We've got some mean, overbearing people in South Salt Lake, but nobody's going to run me out," he said. "I don't know anything about the law, but I know justice."