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Urban farmers are challenging city halls to rewrite ordinances

bizTara 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.”


1 Ladyhawke1 { 02.06.10 at 8:07 am }

Your story:
Urban farmers are challenging city halls to rewrite ordinances.

You should get educated because you do not know what you are talking about. Things for US city FOLK are not going to get any easier and we have to eat too. Some of us do not live in snootyville and are able to grow our own food. I hope the walls on the snootyvilles in this country are high enough to keep the hungry out when the come a callin’.

We either learn to take care of ourselves and our friends and neighbors or we all go down together. This country is fast becoming a third world nation and just because you have a few more discretionary dollars in your pocket….what makes you think you are safe. You just have a little more time on your side.

Do the right thing and really look into the movement that is trying to keep the food on the average American table through these hard times.


“If things get any worse, this household is making plans to go live with the Na’vi. “- BH

2 Faerunner { 08.31.10 at 8:31 am }

“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.”

I can see their argument about not wanting a “thriving” business next door if there’s no parking. That’s something that would clearly be a pain, and should have been addressed openly. HOWEVER…

Properly taken care of, a compost pile will NOT smell. I worked at an urban farm all summer with 16 large compost stacks between pallets, all kept full to the brim with fresh layers of material from the farm. Not a single pile ever smelled of anything but fresh earth and hay, even in the 90+ degree heat. My own tiny home compost pile only rarely smells, even though I’m hardly a master composter. If your compost smells, you’re doing something wrong. Even if you can’t remove the ‘earthy’ smell entirely (why some people will put up with inhaling perfume all day but can’t put up with smelling good rich earth I’ll never understand), putting it into a container (a plain black trash can with holes punched/cut in it works just fine) should be enough to keep any smell in your own yard.

As far as livestock noise and “smells”, I like ’em. I don’t mind the soft clucking of chickens in the back yard and I certainly don’t think THEY smell if kept clean. Goats are a different story and I would hesitate before keeping them in a very small cul-de-sac, but why not keep them in a large backyard? Again, when properly kept, they shouldn’t smell much… and it’s not like the neighbors don’t produce bad odors. Burnt cooking, trash cans full of half-eaten food that attract flies and rats, noxious “ornamental” flowers whose scent is so heavy you can barely breathe when walking by the lawn… am I allowed to complain to the city about my neighbor’s immaculately sculpted, pesticide-heavy, water-wasting atrocity of a lawn?