Urban agriculture zoning rules move on to City Council

The Urban Agriculture Zoning Text Amendment passed its final hurdle before reaching the City Council when it was approved — with some tweaks — by the council’s Zoning and Planning Committee today.

Those tweaks touched on two key issues for urban farmers: the number of days they’ll be allowed to sell flowers and produce from farmstands and the height of hoop houses, temporary structures used to extend the growing season. The committee also approved amendments to the zoning text amendment that dealt with the design of front-yard planters and the use of anaerobic digesters, a technology that uses compost to produce energy.

If approved by the full council when it comes up on March 30, the zoning text amendment would for the first time define many common urban agriculture practices in city code. It’s being watched closely by the city’s urban farmers, some of who have been growing produce for sale on small, quasi-legal urban plots for at least five years.

Ward 2 City Council Member Cam Gordon, who authored the amendment, said he was “excited” and “relieved” that it was finally close to a council vote after months of collaborative work with city staff and urban farmers. Gordon also said he was pleased that committee members were able to compromise on farmstands and hoop houses.

The compromise reached today means urban farmers will be able to sell from farmstands up to 15 days per year with a temporary use permit. That includes sales at market garden sites, which could be located in residential areas.

City staff originally proposed up to 25 sale days per year, but City Council members Lisa Goodman (Ward 7) and Meg Tuthill (Ward 10) both expressed concerns about the noise and traffic sales would bring to residential areas. Tuthill introduced an amendment at the last Zoning and Planning Committee meeting that would have limited farmers to just two sales per year — the same as the limit on garage sales — but even she eventually conceded that was too few and voted for the compromise offered by Gordon.

Tuthill also authored an amendment that would have limited the height of hoop houses to 6 feet, just half of the 12-foot height limit recommended by staff. She chose the 6-foot limit, she said, because it matched the height limit for residential fences already in city code.

A substitute amendment from Gordon set a 6-and-a-half-foot height limit on hoop houses located on residential lots with up to four units and kept the 12-foot height limit for other locations. The amendment passed, with only Tuthill voting against.

After the meeting, Eric Larsen and Emily Hanson of the Stone’s Throw Urban Farm said the could accept the hoop house compromise. Like most commercial growers operating in city limits, they negotiate agreements with property owners to grow their crops on vacant lots, and those vacant lots wouldn’t be limited to the shorter hoop houses.

A final amendment from Tuthill defining the types of materials allowed in front yard planters passed with little comment from the other committee members.

Ward 9 City Council Member Gary Schiff, who chairs the committee, offered the one new amendment that hadn’t been discussed at the previous Zoning and Planning Committee hearing. The amendment to allow anaerobic digesters in industrially zoned districts passed unanimously.

During the meeting, Goodman compared the city’s coming experiment with regulating urban agriculture to its gradual acceptance of food carts. Food carts were first allowed to operate Downtown in 2010, but were granted access to other portions of the city last year in part because they proved to be very popular.

Goodman suggested the council should again take a close look at the urban agriculture regulations next spring, after they’ve played out for a year in the city’s neighborhoods — much the same approach that was taken with foodcarts.

That sounded promising to Hanson and Larsen of Stone’s Throw Urban Farm.

They said the 15-day restriction on farmstands, in particular, should get another look next year. While 15 sales per year could provide a grower with some “supplemental income,” no one could make a living on farming alone under those rules, Larsen said.

Hanson said a successful urban farming operation has to operate with multiple revenue streams.

Stone’s Throw will operate mainly as a community supported agriculture operation, or CSA, meaning members buy shares of the farm in exchange for weekly produce deliveries during the season. But it will also operate a farmstand near one of its market gardens in the Phillips neighborhood and sell produce weekly at the Mill City Farmers Market, Hanson said.

The City Council will still have at least one issue to iron-out when it votes on the urban agriculture zoning text amendment next week. Some committee members, including Tuthill and Ward 4 City Council Member Barbara Johnson, expressed concern that farmstand sales would be allowed as early as 7 a.m. — too early, Tuthill argued.

Agreeing they would like more information on the matter, committee members decided to leave the issue for next Friday.