Zoning rules for urban agriculture raise questions

With growing season around the corner, coming votes are crucial


Ward 10 City Council Member Meg Tuthill this week expressed some reservations about the Urban Agriculture Zoning Code Text Amendment set to come before the council’s Zoning and Planning Committee March 1.


Tuthill, though, predicted the concerns she and some other council members have would not prevent the City Council from approving some version of the text amendment this spring. That’s good news for the urban farmers who are awaiting clarification of the city rules governing their businesses even as they prepare for the 2012 growing season.


Urban farmer Nate Watters said “it’s crunch time” for growers like him, who have been operating on the margins of city code for the past several years. They want the rules set before the start of the outdoor growing season, which could begin as soon as the first week of April, he said.


“The growing season is coming, it’s coming right around the corner,” Watters said.


Tuthill said some parts of the text amendment remained “very vague,” and said she’d heard from many constituents who didn’t know about the proposal.


“Unless this is your passion, you may not be aware … of what the changes are,” she said.


The zoning code text amendments, if adopted, would codify many common urban farming practices for the first time and offer protection for the small business owners who farm in the city. They were developed with significant input from urban farmers.


At a Feb. 21 CARAG neighborhood meeting, Tuthill, who sits on the Zoning and Planning Committee, said she might seek to delay the discussion on the proposed amendment because of her concerns. Two days later, though, she said she wouldn’t slow down the process.


It’s been about five years now since urban farmers growing flowers and produce on empty city lots began to appear at area farmers markets, but they operated knowing they could be shut down at any time. At least one farmer, Jeremy McAdams of Cherry Tree House Mushrooms, moved his business to the suburbs after multiple run-ins with zoning inspectors.


Anna Cioffi of the non-profit Land Stewardship Project said she was concerned committee members might alter or remove suggested zoning text that would allow so-called “market gardens” on empty residential lots, a move she called “outrageous.”


“First of all, there are already a dozen urban farms in residential areas in Minneapolis,” Cioffi said.


“The city of St. Paul is actually welcoming farmers and renting land for a dollar a parcel, which is the opposite of what’s happening right now in Minneapolis,” she added later.


At the CARAG meeting, Tuthill said she had questions about language in the amendment that would allow for hoop houses up to 12 feet tall. The temporary structures used to extend the growing season. She noted that a homeowner planning to erect a similarly sized garage on his or her lot would face much greater city oversight.


Tuthill added many of her constituents were concerned about the presence of lead in city soil.


“That’s the one thing I keep hearing from the neighborhoods,” she said. “… People are very concerned about lead contamination in the soil.”


Asked about lead, Watters said he tests every plot for contamination, sending soil samples to the University of Minnesota for analysis. It’s a standard practice among the city’s urban farmers, he said.


“We test every single site for lead and we make sure that it’s below the limit,” he explained. “And then, after it’s been tested, and after it’s below the limit, we bring tons of compost [and] tons of organic matter [to the site]. And that’s not only good for the plants and vegetables, but it’s also good for the soil, so it’s a non-issue.”


Cioffi noted the University of Minnesota Extension Service had begun offering free soil testing for toxins. Both she and Watters noted that rural farms are not free from the threat of soil contamination, either.


“It’s interesting that [Tuthill] brings that up, because how often do you ask your farmer who you buy vegetables from in the market how much testing they do in rural areas?” she said. “… I would really trust a farmer not to be poisoning their customers.”


If the zoning code text amendment passes smoothly through the March 1 Zoning and Planning Committee, it would come up for a vote at the March 8 City Council meeting. If committee members choose to continue the discussion at their March 22 meeting, a Council vote would be delayed until at least March 30.


Referring to the potential for a delay, Tuthill tried to soothe any concerns.


“I think everyone who is on [the] Zoning and Planning [Committee], we’re all gardeners, if I’m not mistaken,” she said. “Some better than others.”


Follow this link to learn more about the Urban Agriculture Zoning Code Text Amendment.