Urban Farmers Fight Nationwide to Sow Green Biz
Friday, 05 Feb 2010 07:01 AM Article Font Size
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."