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City Slams Urban Farmer for Rats, Weeds in Former Vacant Lot

By Benjamin Woodard | October 8, 2014 5:30am
 Cahill took over a vacant lot in 2011 and planted fruit trees, veggies and berries.
Moah's Ark Slammed by City
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ROGERS PARK — An urban farmer who bought and then transformed a vacant lot into an urban farm and garden has been hit by the city with 25 building code violations.

Now she worries the city could take her to court and force her to uproot the farm.

"This is just nuts," said Mo Cahill, 60, standing among her apple, pear and plum trees, tomato plants and raspberry bushes at 1839 W. Touhy Ave. "When it was an empty lot, it was a real eyesore."

Cahill said an inspector showed up unannounced in August and toured her farm. She owns the neighboring two-flat and lives in another two-flat two lots to the east.

At the end of September, a list of violations — 18 for her home and seven for the farm — came in the mail.

 Mo Cahill's old Chevy truck doubles as a chicken coop.
Mo Cahill's old Chevy truck doubles as a chicken coop.
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DNAinfo/Benjamin Woodard (File)

Ben Woodard says the garden has become an oasis for some neighbors:

The case, instigated by a complaint to 311, has been referred to the city's Law Department, and Cahill could be fined, said Buildings Department spokeswoman Mimi Simon.

"The Department of Buildings supports the safety and quality of life for the residents and visitors of the City of Chicago through enforcement of the Chicago Building Code," Simon said in a news release.

The department alleges Cahill "failed to provide noncombustible screen fence around" the lot, according to the inspector's report. The report also instructs Cahill to "remove debris from demolition" from the farm, including piles of dirt, logs, wood and construction debris.

The department says the debris harbors rats.

But the piled dirt and organic debris was part of a farming technique to create healthy topsoil, she said, and had produced crops all summer long, including 150 pounds of tomatoes.

"This 'rat harborage' business," she said, referring to the inspection report, "they could ticket anybody, they could ticket anybody. There's probably not a building in this city where you couldn't find a rat."

She said she also adopted three cats to help keep rats away from her property.

The inspector also noted "stagnant water" at the farm. Cahill said that was from a sprinkler she had turned on earlier in the day.

The city allows community gardens and urban farms, but the city ordinance only refers to farmers who sell what they produce. Cahill said she doesn't sell her crops.

At her home, the inspector also found alleged violations, some of which Cahill said she had already addressed. Many of them refer to her backyard chickens and native plant gardens.

The city has collected more than $19.5 million in fines since 2009 from property owners who have violated the ordinance governing weed growth.

"I don't pull flowering stuff; that's what the bees need," she said.

Chicago property owners are allowed to keep chickens, but the inspector cited Cahill for "noxious odors" and an "unsanitary and offensive condition caused by poultry" in her backyard, which includes her old Chevy truck that she converted into a chicken coop.

The city referred to the truck as abandoned, and instructed her to remove it and eradicate a "severe fly infestation."

"Yes, my chicken coop smells like a chicken coop," she said. "A blind person would know it's a chicken coop. But that doesn't mean it's a noxious odor."

Cahill said she uses the chickens' droppings to fertilize her plants.

There were other problems with her home noted, too, including a busted front porch railing, which Cahill admitted was justified. She said the frame of a basement window had also rotted and she intends to fix it.

"Oh, this is another good one," she said, reading from the report. " 'Failed to maintain roof gutters in good repair and working condition — rear porch gutter rusted and deteriorated.'

"It's got rust on it — it's perfectly sound. There's no leaks in it," Cahill said.

Another violation claims her home's address numbers weren't visible from the street, despite them being displayed on the front door.

"Go stand on the street and tell me you can't see 'em," she said. "The pizzas always get here — I don't know."

Since Cahill opened the farm, she has drawn a small group of admirers in the neighborhood and online. A Facebook page for the urban farm has more than 500 followers.

On Monday, passerby Hollye Kroger, 68, stopped and waved to Cahill.

"It's so sad that they're hassling you," Kroger said after learning of the city's allegations. "Why are they doing it, so they can get money from you? This is a nice little green space. ... I think it's much nicer than a vacant lot, where people throw their beer bottles and pee and sleep."

She said the city's stance was "awful."

"And I pay taxes in this city," Kroger said. "Use my taxes for something that makes a difference, as opposed to hassling you about this beautiful, fun, kinda cool place."

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