Urban Farms, Gardens Debated for New Zoning Code

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On a warm Saturday in early December a crowd of more than 30 volunteers were on hand to continue transforming a once-empty lot on North Blount Street into the city’s first urban farm.

Raleigh City Farm, which opened in March, takes up a formerly empty lot across from William Peace University. But when it comes to urban farms and community gardens, Raleigh City Farm is the exception, not the rule.

Under current city law, gardens are not allowed to serve as the principal use for a plot of land, and farms are only permitted in certain areas. Gardens are permitted only in mixed-use districts as an accessory use on properties already occupied by, for example, a church or a school.

That could all change with the Unified Development Ordinance — a complete rewrite of the city zoning code currently in the works. One section calls for allowing farms and gardens to take up entire properties, if they meet certain requirements.

If the UDO is approved, community gardens will be allowed in most zoning districts, including residential and mixed-use, according to Travis Crane, a senior planner for the city.

“They would be permitted either as a limited use — meaning there are additional regulations that must be met — or as a special-use permit, which would require appearing before the Board of Adjustment,” he said.

Urban farms will also be allowed, but only in non-residential districts and with a special-use permit. Crane said this restriction is because urban farms have a wider range of uses and therefore a greater impact on surrounding areas.

[media-credit name=”James Borden” align=”aligncenter” width=”600″][/media-credit]

James Borden

Raleigh City Farm

Gardens Vs. Farms
There are many key factors that set urban farms apart from community gardens, including how they are run and which crops and what types of animals may be raised on the property.

“Put the impacts on land use aside. When you think of farming you tend to conjure up ideas of large machinery and noise abatement and things of that nature,” Crane said.

Crane sees on-site sales as one of the biggest distinctions between the two, and the reason he believes regulation is needed.

“If you place that aside and focus only on sales as an allowed use on the property, that’s where city staff is drawing the distinction,” he said. “Is it really appropriate for a community garden in a residential area to sell produce and become a bona fide, prima facie business?”

[media-credit name=”Photo by Raleigh City Farm.” align=”aligncenter” width=”600″][/media-credit]

Photo by Raleigh City Farm.

NCSU students work at Raleigh City Farm.

Too Restrictive?
Urban agriculture advocates say the proposed permitting restrictions are overly burdensome.

To get a special-use permit, a resident must pay a $200 filing fee and go through a quasi-judicial hearing. At the hearing, a resident must provide expert testimony and research about the impact farms and gardens would have on the surrounding area.

Instead, advocates for the farms and gardens believe the special-use permit process should be required only for urban farms wishing to operate in residential districts and not at all for community gardens.

What’s Next

The Raleigh City Council’s Law and Public Safety Committee will discuss the proposal during a meeting at 3 p.m. Tuesday in the City Hall, Room 305.

A petition circulated last month has led to a hearing Tuesday before a Raleigh City Council committee.

In an email to the Record, Laura Khalil, the Urban Ag Program Manager at Inter-Faith food shuttle, said the city should not place such strong barriers.

“Community gardens increase access to fresh, healthy, affordable, and locally produced food, often in neighborhoods that need it most. They foster community cohesion and support community health,” Khalil said.

“Urban gardens have similar benefits, but go further in addressing the root cause of hunger, which is poverty,” she said. “Urban agriculture involves intensive gardening in small-plot urban spaces for the purpose of not only growing food, but selling it to create jobs and income streams in underserved communities.”

Setting an Example
Raleigh City Farm leases the lot on North Blount Street, which is owned by Hobby Properties. The lot was rezoned from Residential 2 to Shopping Center Conditional Use six years ago. One of those conditions was a self-imposed restriction on agriculture.

However, because existing city code allows for agriculture as a general use in this type of district. Raleigh City Farm was able to rezone, lifting that restriction.

If the farm operators were applying under the UDO, the property owner would have had to obtain a special-use permit.[media-credit name=”Photo by Raleigh City Farm.” align=”alignright” width=”450″][/media-credit]

City Farm board member Laurel Varnado said the rezoning process helped demonstrate to people that a farm such as theirs could not only co-exist peacefully and sustainably in an urban environment, but that it could do so while in full compliance with existing city code.

“We got a lot of community support about it because they really wanted a farm here rather than a vacant lot, they were very excited about it, and so the neighborhood just got behind us in droves,” Varnado said.

When the rezoning was discussed in a July 2011 Planning Commission meeting, several members of the community spoke out in favor of the farm moving forward. None spoke in opposition.

The farm, which operates as a nonprofit, has also established partnerships with local businesses and institutions, said Ryan Finch, a volunteer coordinator.

“William Peace University, they mow our lawn. On Fridays Exploris Middle School comes out,” she said. “We have [visits from] NC State Students scheduled into 2013, Eschelon Hospitality Group – they own five restaurants – they had a big work day here recently and it was super-duper fun.”

Accessory Use Only
Cullen Whitley is an award-winning community gardening expert who has helped start more than 65 gardens across the state and around the globe, including one in Frankfurt, Germany.

A member of the Highland United Methodist Church, Whitley helped his church develop its own garden, now in its third growing season, on a quarter-acre of church land once set to be used as a parking lot.

“Our particular garden, luckily, is on the same piece of property as the church, Whitley said. “If it was across the street, we couldn’t have put it in.”

Whitley said 60 to 65 percent of the garden’s members don’t belong the church, some driving from as far as Rocky Mount to take part.

This year the garden donated half of its produce, roughly 4,000 pounds, to Plant a Row for the Hungry. And it’s not just the food, Whitley said.

“Growing vegetables is now secondary to our mission. It’s the things that are accomplished because of the garden,” he said.

Two families this year came to the garden after visiting with sick parents at Rex Hospital.

“They became friends, and would come and watch the sun rise in the garden together, go sit with their families, then come watch the sun set and have dinner together. So if the garden hasn’t accomplished anything more than that…”

Moving Forward
In spite of their differences over specific requirements, city staff and urban agriculture advocates are mostly in agreement when it comes to the importance of and the need for both community gardens and urban farms.

City Manager Russell Allen said city officials decided to create allowances in the UDO for urban agriculture in response to overwhelming community support.

“There’s a certain component of independence, reliability that’s here, if you grow it fresh yourself it sort of goes back a little to the days of old farming,” he said. “In my view, that’s a positive trend as it matches up in an urban environment.”

But that doesn’t mean they should be allowed anywhere, Crane said.

“We’ve heard that barrier is too strong, they feel that sales should be allowed across the board and that regulatory controls should be essentially removed,” Crane said. “From a public policy standpoint, I’m not sure that’s the best course of action to take.“

What’s Next
The Raleigh City Council’s Law and Public Safety Committee will discuss the proposal during a meeting at 3 p.m. Tuesday in the City Hall, Room 305.

One thought on “Urban Farms, Gardens Debated for New Zoning Code

  1. These zoning laws sound like something from the 1890s. They were written when people actually had pigs, cows, and chickens around the house, roaming lose. Considering that even the food we get from Whole Foods is filled with carcinogens, unleashing urban farms like they did in Detroit has health, economic, and educational rewards that far outweigh any fear of deregulation. Kind of silly really when I read the regulations on the books. All that is needed is a rooster ban.