Community gardens v. city zoning

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Raleigh city planners are moving closer to finding a way to make community gardens legal under city zoning rules.

Under the current zoning code, gardens are allowed within the city but only as additions to residential properties, or what planners call an “accessory use.” Properties used solely for gardens, like an empty lot, are considered “principal use” and are not allowed.

Currently there are 17 gardens listed on North Carolina State University’s community garden database for Wake County. These gardens are operated by churches, schools, community groups, and non-profits like the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, which has started four gardens and a farm since April of last year.

The Wedge Community Garden operates on a piece of land lent to gardeners by the YMCA just west of downtown. Photo by Charles C. Duncan Pardo.

“Our gardens are meant to spark community involvement,” said Food Shuttle farm manager and educator Sun Butler. “The farm’s focus is on vegetable production and teaching sustainable gardening techniques to young people.”

The Food Shuttle farm, which is located outside of city limits on Tryon Road, has produced nearly 14,000 pounds of veggies this year. The fact that this was done on little more than an acre shows the real potential of urban agriculture, Butler said.

“With more involvement we could create a truly local food system,” said Butler.

Technically the Food Shuttle gardens within Raleigh’s city limits, and many other community gardens in Raleigh, are illegal.

Trisha Hasch with the city planning department said no gardens have been shut down or cited for not following city zoning rules.

“If people want to grow food, they should be able to grow food,” Hasch said.

But, Butler said, it only takes one unhappy neighbor to shut down the whole operation. “If we open a compost pile and someone’s downwind, we’re going to get a complaint.”

Raleigh’s planning department is currently in the process of rewriting the city’s entire zoning code, giving much needed and awaited attention to the community garden issue.

“A lot of people are really interested in community gardening,” said Hasch. “And the city is really interested in promoting that and assisting them.”

The problem that planners are facing right now is the actual language and structure of the proposed change. “There’s a number of things that need consideration before this can go to council,” said Hasch.

For community gardens on private property the change would be simple, involving the removal of the current zoning barriers that prevent them.

On the other hand, community gardens on public property face several legal issues that still need to be fully addressed, including liability if someone gets food poisoning or injured and the procedure for reacquiring land after a garden has been established.

Planners hope to have the new zoning code in place by the early part of next year.

“People want it done in time for spring planting,” said Hasch

The change would put gardens like The Wedge, at 214 Park Ave. in compliance with the city’s zoning laws.

The Wedge garden, which gets its name from the shape of the lot, was started by the Hillsborough Citizens Advisory Council.

Members of the council asked the Hillsborough Street YMCA if they could use the vacant lot for a community garden. The YMCA responded with an enthusiastic “sure,” said Jessica Tisdale, a Wedge gardener.

“It involves a lot of pulling weeds,” Tisdale said. “You get fresh local produce, you know where it’s coming from and what goes into it.”

“It creates cohesion in a community,” said Tisdale, “a space for face to face interaction with your neighbors.”

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