LDS leaders want to turn community garden into parking lot. Neighbors are fighting back.

The Outreach Community Garden covers 1.5 acres embedded inside an east Salt Lake City block, where neighbors have tended dozens of plots for 43 years, yielding food and building community on land long owned and watered by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

These plots soon will be covered with asphalt to accommodate parking under a plan to expand the territory served by the church’s 33rd Ward building, 453 S. 1100 East, immediately southwest of the garden. The pending move has stunned many neighbors who believe the church can meet its needs without sacrificing a community asset that holds a rich history and connects directly to the faith’s agricultural heritage.

"This has been a part of our lives for almost as long as we've been here. One thing that's been disappointing about this process is the way that it has just happened out of nowhere," said gardener and neighbor Christy Porucznik. "One day we essentially got an eviction notice."

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jeff Porucznik and his daughter Zoey, 13, walk around the community garden where families have grown fruits and vegetables for years. The Poruczniks grow on one of the 42 plots at the garden, which has operated on church land for 43 years.

Last month, a notice was posted on the gate, informing gardeners that they had until Dec. 31 to remove “personal and community property" from the parcel between 1100 East and 1200 East. Driving the need for additional parking is the consolidation of three east-side Latter-day Saint wards, or congregations, into the 33rd Ward, according to Patrick Risk, a church planning official who met with residents Thursday night at a meeting of the East Central Community Council.

The church’s membership in Utah’s capital is dwindling, forcing it to combine wards in the very city where the religion took root in the West and blossomed for the past 172 years. Accordingly, the historic University and Douglas wards, each with about 350 members, will now use the 33rd Ward building at staggered meeting times.

“With that, obviously, there’s a need for parking, which is always a challenge in the downtown area,” Risk told the standing-room-only crowd at Judge Memorial High School’s library. “And some of our meetinghouses were designed back when there was only one ward and a lot of people could walk. But now that you’re having three wards attend the building, that encompasses a broader area.”

How many stalls are too many?

The church originally indicated it needed 170 parking stalls, then lowered the number to 150, according to gardeners, who suspected the church was using a formula that failed to account for the historic and walkable nature of Salt Lake City’s University district. On Thursday, however, Risk said the building could get by with 117 stalls, including the 60 already there.

That’s still far more than Salt Lake City ordinances require for an institutional building the size of the 33rd Ward’s building, according to gardener Jeff Barrett, a father of two young children who has worked the garden for nine years.

“We don’t need parking in town. We should be removing parking, not adding. That’s where the city is,” Barrett said. “Why don’t you bring in a third ward, put a pause on the parking lot, and let’s see how it goes? That’ll give us more time to talk about alternatives and parking sharing. ... It might tell us we need 10 more spots, but 90?”

At Thursday’s meeting, residents suggested the church reconfigure the existing lot to accommodate more cars and expand onto the lawn behind the meetinghouse; reserve parking places for the elderly, encouraging others to walk or ride transit; and use the Rice-Eccles Stadium parking lot two blocks away.

“We have a lot of people, we have a lot of ideas and a lot of ways that maybe we can create a win-win situation that works both [for the garden] and the consolidation, which we’re very pleased with, lowering footprints, bringing people together,” said community council chairwoman Esther Hunter, who moderated Thursday’s discussion with an eye toward keeping the dialogue civil. She noted the church’s generosity over the years to support the garden.

“It would be remiss to not be completely grateful for that,” she said. “At the same time, people are very anxious about the garden itself and hoping that we can find some way to solve it.”

At times, some residents rankled at Risk’s explanation for greatly expanded parking and argued the church promotes driving by overbuilding parking at the expense of the livability of neighborhoods. Hunter insisted residents submit comments and questions in writing, rather than lobbing them at Risk.

“It seems counter to the teachings and principles of the LDS Church to remove a community garden solely for the benefit of cars. This is very backward thinking,” Hunter said, reading from one person’s comment card. “A garden fosters community, well-being of humans and all occupants of the area, clean air, healthy food and so much more. Cars do none of these things. We would hope the congregation would be encouraged to carpool, to walk for better health or cleaner air. This is a very stressful time in our culture. Your garden is the answer.”

After the applause abated, Risk said the church could not “dictate” that its members walk or carpool.

“The church dictates other aspects of its members’ lives,” quipped one audience member, eliciting a glare from Hunter. A 33rd Ward member, she hopes to preserve the garden by celebrating its value as a community asset.

“It’s not just a piece of dirt, because that soil has been enriched,” Hunter said. “There’s just an incredible amount of investment.”

Inspired by President Kimball

With 42 irrigated plots, the garden also supports a huge chicken coop housing the Barretts’ 23 birds, a large fruit orchard and at least 12 beehives. Deer are seen loitering in the plots in winter.

“These are apricots. I made jam from this tree this year," Barrett said while touring the orchard, the trees’ branches now devoid of leaves and fruit. "There’s some peaches. And that one is surrounded by all raspberries. We let our kids loose in that area by that one apricot tree because it’s all berries. The kids just like go to town. They could sit in there, and they just smear themselves.”

In their Oct. 14 notice, church officials said the faith bought the land to “prepare for the future expansion needs of the wards and members that would be using the church property for religious services.”

The land has been in church possession since well before 1968, when Calvin Tolman moved into the neighborhood. Back then, it was used as a ballfield, but that got shut down after too many home runs left windows broken at homes along 1200 East, recalled Tolman, who served as the 33rd Ward’s bishop from 1995 to 2000.

The seeds for the garden were sown in an address then-LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball gave at General Conference in 1976, encouraging members to garden.

“Lloyd Butterfield was the bishop then,” Tolman said. “He announced that he wanted the ward members to start growing things to fulfill President Kimball’s counsel.”

Tolman helped cut ditches along the field’s periphery and install waterlines that are used to this day.

“I gardened there for 25 years. I always realized that it was church property and at any time, they could develop it. There was talk in the 1970s of a stake center [regional meetinghouse] going in, but the configuration of the land couldn’t conform to the church’s standards,” Tolman said. “It got tabled and we just kept gardening.”

Christy and Jeff Porucznik live across the alley from the garden with their two children who have roamed the garden’s plots, orchards and bamboo forest their entire lives. Since he was 3, Quinn Porucznik, now 10, has been affectionately seen as the garden’s “mayor” because of his habit of striking up conversations with pretty much anyone about anything.

When he was 4, he struck up such a conversation with strangers helping themselves to ripe fruit hanging in the orchard, according to his mom. He queried the intruders about why they were picking fruit that they didn’t help grow.

“I don’t know many people, but I know everyone at the garden,” Quinn said last week while showing a reporter around. Those familiar faces across the alley may soon be a thing of the past, along with the bounty of fruit, vegetables, eggs and honey the hidden parcel has yielded since Kimball’s homily so long ago.