The Filbert Street Garden in South Baltimore’s Curtis Bay is where Kenny Moss, 20, grew his first tomato as a young kid and had a plot where he harvested strawberries, thyme, oregano and sugar baby watermelon.

It is also where as a teenager he became a part of the Baltimore Compost Collective, a program that teaches young people about the practice of recycling food scraps and plant waste to be used as a soil enhancer.

But now Moss and others with the collective will have to find a new home after being asked to vacate the garden where the group has been for years.

Filbert Street Garden and the Baltimore Compost Collective are expected to part ways by the end of March after not coming to an agreement on new rules and policies for tenants at the garden. The guidelines were put in place after the garden’s nonprofit purchased the land it occupies from the city.

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Marvin Hayes, executive director of the Baltimore Compost Collective, had concerns with parts of the guidelines, including the use of surveillance cameras, which the agreement lists as a safety measure. Disagreement over the guidelines was the final tipping point in a tumultuous last few years between the organizations that have led to grievances filed with the garden’s board, the hiring of lawyers and damaged working relationships. Some of it has turned personal.

“I can see if we did something wrong to the land or community, but if it’s just ‘I don’t like him and he don’t like me,’ that shouldn’t be a legitimate reason,” Moss said of the split.

Filbert Street Garden, a nonprofit founded in 2010 as part of the Adopt-a-Lot Program, purchased the land it occupies from the city for $1 in June. It created and distributed the tenant agreement as their new responsibilities and liabilities as owners of the land settled in. Though Derrick Wood, president of the garden’s board, said they’d been in discussion about liabilities and insurance beforehand. In the agreement are sections that address the use of the premises, communication responsibilities of the tenants and insurance requirements for tenants.

Hayes was taken aback by the new rules, especially because he does not view himself or the Baltimore Compost Collective as a tenant. Instead, he views them as partners of the garden, because of how much the group has helped steward, promote and maintain the land over the years, he said.

“I feel used to create this space. … I should have made sure we had documentation that protected us,” Hayes added.

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He was also not comfortable with the use of surveillance cameras on his workspace, especially since a person who’d have access to the cameras filed a grievance with the garden’s board against him that he thought was handled poorly.

Hayes has also had issues with the board and its past president, Rodette Jones, that predate the proposed tenant agreement. In 2020, Jones accepted funds and donated lunches on behalf of the garden from Wheelabrator, a trash incinerator in South Baltimore. Hayes, an adamant environmental justice advocate, protested the acceptance of the funds during a Fox45 television segment, which caused a strain in Hayes’ and Jones’ working relationship.

Hayes said he requested mediation for the two and was met with a peace order filing that was ultimately thrown out by a judge. As a Black man, the main caretaker of his father and someone who works with youth, Hayes said he felt very wronged by unjustly being brought into the criminal justice system. He’s since gotten the peace order filing shielded from his record.

Jones told The Baltimore Banner that she was open to mediate but that Hayes refused, and ultimately they couldn’t resolve their differences. Jones was asked to be in the garden at certain hours that differed from Hayes’ hours, but it was not conducive to her growing season, she said. She decided to leave the garden.

“I could not be there with him,” Jones said.

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Hayes began to lose trust and confidence in the board even after Jones resigned and Wood, a former secretary of the board, took on the role.

Hayes’ frustration with the board got so bad he refused to communicate with them directly because of the toll the situation was taking on his mental health and work. Nicole Labruto, member of the Baltimore Compost Collective’s advisory board , filled that gap and relayed to the board in July 2023 a list of grievances from Hayes, including not being supported throughout the peace order process and feeling that Jones was not held accountable for her actions.

“When trust in the board was lost, that’s when Baltimore Compost Collective called for new leadership,” Labruto said.

Wood maintains that the grievance against Hayes has nothing to do with the separation. He added that the process has been an emotional one for both parties. In August 2023, Wood sent a letter to Hayes apologizing for how things have transpired between the two groups. He said he admires Hayes and the work that he has done for the garden and the community.

“Marvin is always welcome at the garden. It’s just the partnership is now over. It doesn’t meant they can’t come volunteer or come to events,” Wood said.

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But that’s not how Hayes and others within the compost group see it. In October 2023, they received a letter from the garden’s lawyer reiterating that the group would have to vacate if they did not sign a tenant agreement. There was also mention of law enforcement being contacted if the group chose to access the garden and didn’t leave if asked.

Some in the community are still trying to catch up on the specifics of the split.

“CCBA values the Filbert Street Garden and the Baltimore Compost Collective and is deeply concerned about the issues being raised. We are committed to a process to understand the situation, how we got here and how we move forward in way that centers equity and the community’s right to guide its own development following a history of environmental injustice and involuntary displacement,” the Community of Curtis Bay Association said in a statement.

Filbert Street Garden and the Baltimore Compost Collective both obtained lawyers, and for the latter part of 2023 they unsuccessfully discussed the tenant agreement in negotiations.

“These are people who very much wanted to work with the Baltimore Compost Collective and have bent over backwards to try and accommodate and be reasonable with him,” said Andrea LeWinter, an attorney representing Filbert Street Garden.

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The garden’s board also sent a letter to their partners about the split in November 2023, which came as a surprise to Hayes because negotiations were still happening. Hayes said he’s felt gaslighted throughout the process, especially after recently being asked if he still wanted to receive his “Protector of the Garden” award.

Brittany Coverdale, garden coordinator at Filbert Street Garden, said she recommended anti-racism training to the Filbert Street Garden’s board prior to the Baltimore Compost Collective being given notice to vacate. Coverdale added that as an organization, it could have learned from the training and possibly found an alternative solution.

“I do not believe Filbert Street Garden did everything we could to avoid this unfortunate conclusion of separating from Baltimore Compost Collective. I also do not believe we honored ourselves nor our justice-based mission with this conclusion,” Coverdale said.

Wood said the separation was “bound to happen” and though anti-racism training was recommended, it was also previously discussed among the board. The board is in the process of rolling it out along with diversity, equity and inclusion training, he said.

“This will help us in the future structurally moving from informal to formal operations,” he added.

Labruto and Hayes believed in December 2023 that both groups had come to an agreement on the surveillance cameras and were ready to sign the document without requesting additional changes. The Baltimore Compost Collective received notice from its lawyer that Filbert Street Garden did not want to continue negotiations and the group needed to vacate by Feb. 29. Labruto sent a letter to Filbert Street Garden’s lawyer recapping the group’s thoughts on the split, asking the lawyer to cease and desist from any further action and offer more time to vacate. The Baltimore Compost Collective now has until March 29.

“We have no place to go. We are looking for a place to go, and we need more time to get our stuff out of there,” Hayes said.

This story has been updated to show the Baltimore Compost Collective has an advisory board.

Jasmine Vaughn-Hall is a neighborhood and community reporter at the Baltimore Banner, covering the people, challenges, and solutions within West Baltimore. Have a tip about something happening in your community? Taco recommendations? Call or text Jasmine at 443-608-8983.

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