Urban farmers are challenging city halls to rewrite ordinances
Tara Kolla examines a seedling container, amid other vegetable seedlings that will be planted this spring in the garden at her home in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake district Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2010. Like many eco-minded gardeners, Kolla planted seeds, only to find that her garden violated local zoning laws and alienated her neighbors. – AP Photo
Urban farmers fight nationwide to sow green biz
By Raquel Maria Dillon
Feb 5, 2010
Associated Press Writer
LOS ANGELES – Tara Kolla fancied herself a green thumb-turned-green businesswoman when she planted an organic flower plot in her yard and sold poppies, sweet peas and zinnias at the local farmers market. For her neighbors, it was an eyesore.
Where Kolla saw her efforts as creating a lush sanctuary, her neighbors witnessed dusty pots, steaming compost, flies and a funky aroma on their tiny cul-de-sac in Los Angeles. They complained to zoning officials — and prevailed.
Kolla and other urban farmers are fighting back by challenging city halls across the country to rewrite ordinances that govern residential gardens. They believe feeding their fellow urbanites homegrown tomatoes, fresh eggs and sweet corn will change the world one backyard at a time.
Seattle has loosened its rules for backyard goats, New York City’s health department is taking steps to legalize beekeeping and Detroit is looking into regulating compost and greenhouses.
In Detroit, where zoning laws ban growing crops and raising livestock for profit, city planner Kathryn Lynch Underwood is part of a work group rewriting the regulations and defining what kinds of urban farms might need more oversight.
“The city has not been treating it as an illegal use or a nuisance because it has been a good thing,” Underwood said.
She is hopeful that urban agriculture and the city’s nearly 1,000 community gardens will create good jobs in a city that desperately needs them and put vacant lots to use in blighted neighborhoods.
Kolla, meanwhile, found a loophole allowing her to grow vegetables while lobbying for the right to set up a city farm at her home just four miles from the urban jungle of downtown Los Angeles.
The challenge for cities is to balance the potential to grow green businesses with the concerns of neighbors who don’t want a thriving, for-profit enterprise next door, never mind the noise and smells that come from compost and small livestock.
Urban agriculture crosses jurisdictional lines, said Alfonso Morales, a professor of planning at the University of Wisconsin. He advises cities to set up a one-stop-shop for urban farms, like they have for small business development, so that city farmers can deal with zoning, home business regulations and nuisance laws all in one place.
“There’s such enthusiasm that people push the laws and upset their neighbors,” he said. “The fact is you can’t do anything you want on your property.”
While most urban farms operate under the radar of city officials and many neighborhoods welcome productive plots and even backyard chickens, other city growers run into trouble with neighbors who won’t be placated with gifts of salad greens or fresh eggs.
In middle class areas, concerns about property values and aesthetic differences lead to conflicts.
Kolla alienated neighbors on her quiet cul-de-sac of Spanish bungalows and neat green lawns in the city’s Silver Lake section when she began peddling organic bouquets at farmers markets that she grew on her 21,000 square-foot lot.
“They’re trying to grow it into something bigger than what should be in a small neighborhood,” said Frank San Juan, who lives across the street from Kolla. “When she started having these gardening workshops without telling anybody, there was no parking. You couldn’t enjoy your weekends.”
Just a half century ago, Los Angeles was transforming itself from the most lucrative farm county in the nation into a major metropolis. A zoning ordinance written in 1946 as developers were cutting down the San Fernando Valley’s citrus orchards to build suburbia allowed small farms to grow vegetables to truck to market, but banned growing fruit, nuts or flowers for sale on residential plots.
Kolla could get a conditional use permit, but she has a stubborn streak and it costs $15,000 just to apply. She and others are trying to reverse the zoning laws with a proposal called “The Food and Flowers Freedom Act.”
Growers from across Los Angeles formed the Urban Farming Advocates to rally around Kolla, defend her right to grow and lobby the city.
“Most people would pay to have a view of her backyard,” said founding member Erik Knutzen, who keeps chickens and grows food in his yard. “I can understand someone not wanting 50 roosters or an autobody shop next door, but our proposal is about bringing common sense back to our lives.”
In July, City Council President Eric Garcetti introduced a motion to clarify city policies on urban farms and allow cultivation and sale of flowers, fruits, nuts or vegetables.
While the city farmers wait patiently for the proposal to work its way through the planning commission, Kolla started a weekly vegetable box subscription service so as not to miss too many of Southern California’s long growing seasons.
She feels the distinction between vegetables and fruit is arbitrary and unscientific.
“Broccoli is a flower, and a tomato is a fruit. And some of my flowers are edible,” Kolla said. “It’s more legal for people to grow marijuana in L.A. than flowers.”