City considers zoning amendment to allow for urban farming

This post has been updated

Chickens are so 2009. This time it’s all about the vegetables.

On Wednesday night, the city planning commission will hold a public hearing on an amendment to the zoning ordinance that would make horticulture an allowable “home occupation” on residential properties in Harrisonburg. (The meeting begins at 7 p.m. in the city council chambers).

City planning staff developed the proposed amendment in collaboration with Dan Warren and Sam Frere, who turned their Collicello Street yard into a micro-farm this summer. Their farm, Collicello Gardens, was previously featured on Old South High.

The two intended to operate under the CSA model. In August, however, they were denied a business license because the existing definition of a home occupation requires that all activity associated with the business take place indoors – pretty much ruling out gardening.

Sam Frere (l) and Dan Warren, Collicello Gardeners

Warren and Frere kept on making their weekly deliveries of produce, in return for “donations” rather than “fees” – a sort of semantic trick that they say kept them legal since they were accepting donations rather than exchanging money for goods. Under current zoning laws, growing a personal garden, even a gigantic garden that covers every square inch of your property? Allowed. Selling anything out of that garden? Not allowed.

Later in the fall, planning staff initiated the proposed amendment, and called in Warren and Frere to talk at length about their urban farming plans and practices, which enjoy the support of their landlord and the neighbors. The two left the meeting under the impression that the planning department would initiate an amendment to city zoning rules that would bring Collicello Gardens out of the “produce donation” gray zone and allow them to operate as a full-fledged business.

And indeed, planning staff drafted a proposed amendment that would have that very effect.

This week, however, after the amendment had been scheduled for a public hearing, Frere and Warren got an unexpected call from City Planner Adam Fletcher, who told them that, after further review, the planning department had decided to recommend against its own proposal.

“It was quite a surprise,” said Frere. “He told us that he did not expect that this would happen and it was not a call that he expected to make.” (Opinion on the matter is apparently divided within the planning office.)

From the report that planning staff prepared for the planning commission:

Staff recognized the use desired by Frere and Warren fits with recent social and land use trends that have citizen support.

But…

During the official review, however, we concluded the amendment would create more problems than it would solve and that excepting horticultural businesses from the typical provisions of operating a home business entirely within a main building or accessory building would reduce zoning regulation protection afforded to surrounding residential property owners.

Staff noted that home businesses are supposed to be invisible from the outside to preserve the residential character of neighborhoods. Also, they worry that the amendment could further tangle the difficult-to-enforce “tall grass and weeds” ordinance.

Warren and Frere hope the planning commission – or at least, ultimately, city council – goes against the advice of planning staff to not adopt the amendment:

“We are hopeful that the amendment will pass both planning commission and council because of its simplicity and necessity,” said Frere. “We are excited to learn about the process and to have an opportunity to push what we believe to be a positive change in the city of Harrisonburg.”

The planners’ report ends by noting that the matter is worthy of further study.

“‘Urban farming’ is an issue that is receiving recognition and there are other localities that have adopted relevant ordinances,” the report says. “If Planning Commission or City Council believes there is merit in devoting more staff time to research and draft such an ordinance, staff will continue working and bring back another proposal.”

Amendments to zoning ordinances like this are concerned with the nitty-gritty details of language and intent, but I can’t help but note the bigger-picture irony looming – quite literally – over the entire debate. Great concern is being given to how an organic vegetable garden in Warren and Frere’s yard affects the residential character of Collicello Street, which sits in the shadow of the George’s feedmill, and where two entire blocks of houses on the east side of the street enjoy a view out their back windows of an enormous concrete chicken slaughterhouse. Urban agriculture? It’s already here.

Update: comment from Mayor Richard Baugh

Mayor Baugh tells Old South High that balancing the protection of city neighborhoods’ residential character with fixing the conditions that led Collicello Gardens to operate as a “produce donation program” makes this issue a challenge to address. While he’s inclined to clarify the ordinance to allow for urban horticulture, Baugh said he won’t decide how he would vote on the matter until a specific proposal comes before city council.

Baugh added that the further review and thought suggested by planning staff seems a sensible approach: “Letting staff, Planning Commission and Council vet these issues thoroughly, with some public input thrown in … usually gets us a better result than we would get through attempts at a quick fix, especially (as is almost always the case) when there is no emergency that requires immediate action.”

 

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6 Comments

  1. Danny says:

    What exactly does “residential character” mean? A block with homes and some gardens is still “residential.” The crazy thing about this is that it’s perfectly legal to plant a big garden in your lawn but the moment money is exchanged you’ve violated the neighborhood’s “residential character.” It’s a real bummer when zoning prevents cool things from happening.

  2. David Miller says:

    I’m going to try to make it to voice my support, and future hope of utilizing this zoning allowance. Thanks for covering the issue.

  3. Noel Levan says:

    This summer I grew twelve-foot-tall sunflowers with immense “Mammoth” heads, in raised, rock-bound beds along the sidewalk. Pedestrians were often seen, simply standing, gazing up at them in delight and awe. At the end of the growing season I pruned back my huge rosemary shrub and offered the cuttings to my neighbors as they strode back into the neighborhood from their walks to the market nearby. I’ve grown pumpkins, figs, squash, potatoes, beans, tomatoes (offered en masse to neighbor passersby), as well as other flowers and herbs. All have been freely offered as an expression of community. I’ve no intention of selling any of my offerings as I sooner see them as gifts to be shared, and will support this amendment fully as I am able.

  4. Deb SF says:

    As we saw in the Great Chicken Debate, many folks in the city have a crystal clear idea of what the “residential character” of their neighborhood means for them. I’m voting on this next Wednesday night, and I’ll be interested in what the neighbors think, as it’s not in the staff report. Note that a lot of the discussion is going to be about the stuff in the last 3 paragraphs on page 52 here:

    http://www.harrisonburgva.gov/sites/default/files/CommunityDevelopment/files/Planning-Zoning/Planning-Commission/packets/2012/12%20December%202012%20Packet.pdf

    Because this isn’t just about Collicello Street, but about whether/how to allow commercial gardening all over the city.

  5. Anthony says:

    As a county farmer, I find this whole incident rather amusing. Welcome, Dan and Sam, to the world of agriculture where you better do it right – as defined by those who don’t do it. Is this not the ultimate local food production that everyone seems to glom on to? Or perhaps this is yet another incident of not-in-my-back-yard-itis.

  6. Ilex Opaca says:

    In this economy and time of uncertainty, allowing people to make a little money from their yards and provide their neighbors with good food seems like an easy decision. Since gardens are already legal, it seems like a minor point to allow people to sell their surplus. People in fancy neighborhoods are unlikely to be tearing up their yards to make the “big bucks” gardening, and most other neighborhoods are in sight of the grain elevators, slaughterhouses, or other looming agricultural industry in this agricultural region. I hear many people in Staunton want to fix their no-sales rule, also.

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