Talk about anti-climactic. After months of back-and-forth between farmers, sustainable food activists, concerned neighbors and city officials, City Council opted (7-0) at Thursday’s meeting to delay a vote on changes to the City document that governs urban farms in Austin, asking for more community meetings.
“There has been a lengthy process, and some feel they haven’t been a part of that process,” Council Member Mike Martinez said at the Oct. 17 City Council meeting. “I request we postpone this item to Nov. 21, and that the City Manager try to facilitate a process and work out a few stakeholder meetings and then bring it back to Council.”
All in the Process
The recommended changes to the land code that governs Austin urban farms – mainly around requiring them to procure a permit to host events and setting limitations on on-site fowl processing – came out of an almost yearlong approach to gathering community input, said Katherine Nicely, chair of the working group of the Sustainable Food Policy Board, which was tasked with researching the issue and making a recommendation. The volunteer group of citizens and City employees met with neighborhood associations, interest groups and farmers, and public meetings were held between March and August, averaging about 70 attendees at each.
A volunteer advisory board open to anyone interested, which ended up being 15 people, met weekly, gathering input in person and by email, processing that data and researching best practices. Nicely said members of the group even met some neighborhood association members on their own terms after one expressed fear of expressing his opinions in a public forum.
“We took all of this into consideration because it’s a balance. We have to balance what we’re trying to do by having farms in urban settings because really the city has grown around some of them that have been here for 20 to 25 years,” Nicely said. “But [citizens opposed to urban farms’] concerns are valid as well, because [the farms] can be a nuisance, and [citizens] want to know what’s going on in their backyard.”
However, some say the process wasn’t inclusive enough. Members of People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources (PODER) requested at the Oct. 17 meeting the help of a third-party mediator, like the University of Texas, in the process.
“From the beginning, we asked that an independent body look at the process … along with other stakeholders,” PODER Director Susana Almanza said at the meeting. “It does need to be reviewed because many people don’t even know this is a citywide ordinance. They think it’s just East Austin because that’s where the farms are.”
Throughout the meeting and recommendation process, members of multiple City departments, including Watershed Protection, the Office of Sustainability, the Planning and Development Department, Health and Human Services were included in the discussion, Nicely said.
“There was always a conversation with about seven departments to see where the recommendations would fall,” she said, adding that it’s been a “robust process.” Ultimately, the recommendations were sent to City staff for additional input and were approved (6-1) by the Planning Commission before being added to the City Council agenda.
“The planning commission is a pretty conservative commission,” said Paula McDermott, who chairs the Sustainable Food Board.. “The fact that the planning commission voted for this means they feel like it is fair.”
In addition to questioning the process, the position PODER representatives have taken publicly throughout the debate is that farms shouldn’t exist on urban land zoned for single-family housing, and Mayor Lee Leffingwell echoed that concern at the Oct. 17 meeting, saying he’s “concerned about what appears to be commercial uses in residential zoning.”
Representatives of PODER have also said the farms also represent a power grab in the name of gentrification, decreasing ethnic diversity and affordable housing in neighborhoods.
“The City of Austin must identify and address policies and ordinances that disproportionately impact communities of color and low-income populations. The City Council most work to mitigate and minimize the adverse effects of gentrification. This ordinance would take single family zoned land and commercialize it,” Almanza said in an email to the Austin Post. “We recommend that outside entities from various departments of the University of Texas and/or other universities come together with community neighborhood groups, representative from Community Development Commission, Human Rights Commission and farmers to develop an Urban Farm Ordinance that doesn’t discriminate and/or further gentrifies East Austin.”
That’s just misplaced blame, says Paula Foore, owner of Springdale Farm, whose ability to host weddings to offset the costs of running the farm may be impacted by the changes to the code.
“The thinly veiled root issue is really about gentrification and the rising taxes and costs of living that affect so many people, particularly long-time residents of East Austin. Urban farms have just been made a target to voice that platform,” she said. “I am in complete agreement that the city needs to address the rising costs of housing; I am in complete disagreement that urban farms have anything to do with that. Moreover, I think a postponement of the vote on the proposed recommendations will give time to further inflame an already racially charged issue.”
There are some issues that changes to a land code just can’t solve, Nicely added.
“Urban farms aren’t taking away single-family use or affordable housing; that’s a bigger issue,” she said. “There will be people who are still unhappy [if the changes are accepted], but a land code isn’t going to make those people happy.”
An urban farm under current code is “a parcel of land between 1 and 5 acres that is agriculturally cultivated by a person solely for the production of organic produce to be sold for profit;” typically, this doesn’t include backyard plots or community gardens. There are 20 urban farms in the city limits and another nine in Austin’s extraterritorial jurisdiction. Some of these farms are new, and some, like Boggy Creek Farm which began in 1992, have been operating for decades.
“People have been growing food in Austin since before the city was the city,” Kate Vickery, urban agriculture planner for the Sustainable Urban Agriculture & Community Garden Program.
The two biggest changes regarding urban farms would be as follows:
1. The creation of two new land uses: Market Garden and Urban Farm with Facilities for Gatherings.
- A Market Garden would be a commercial farm operation on a piece of land smaller than 1 acre with limitations on on-site sales. For example, a Market Garden could not have an on-site farm stand or process chickens or rabbits raised on site.
- An Urban Farm with Facilities for Gatherings would be an urban farm of 1 to 5 acres that is permitted to have events like weddings, fundraisers, cooking classes and dinners if a Conditional Use Permit is acquired. The permit requires public notice, public hearing and approval by the City of Austin Planning Commission.
2. A cap on the number of animals (chickens or rabbits) that can be processed, at one animal per one-tenth of an acre per week. This is a change from the current code, which states that processing fowl is permitted but doesn’t plan restrictions on how many or how often. Under the change, a 2-acre farm could process 20 animals per week, with the appropriate city and state health department permits.
Many issues are being considered, including the types of events that take place on an urban farm (and what sort of parking requirements are needed for events), what can be called an urban farm, how many employees can work on the urban farm, how many buildings can the farm have, and what can be sold from a farm stand. However, the issue that’s garnered the most attention is on processing animals on-site at farms.
“Maybe we could get a cooperative or City-sponsored processing center together, alleviating the need to have them onsite,” said City of Austin Council Member Laura Morrison at the Oct. 17 meeting. “If we got that discussion going in parallel, that could alleviate a lot of the discussions about whether or not we need to have slaughtering on site.”
Where Did We Start?
Although the crux of the work on the code update took place in the last 10 months, the process began years ago. The Sustainable Urban Agriculture and Community Garden Program was created by Austin City Council in 2009 to provide a single point of contact to farms and to streamline the process for establishing community gardens and sustainable urban agriculture on city land. One of the things the multi-departmental team realized right off the bat was the land use code governing urban farms and community gardens was sorely out of date, McDermott said.
The first couple of years, the board spent a lot of time on community gardening, but in 2011, when City Council voted to permit urban farms in all land use zones, members “realized that the urban farm definition was a bit arbitrary and wasn’t really fleshed out, so that’s something we wanted to work on but didn’t have the bandwidth,” McDermott said. The City created a position specifically to help with that bandwidth problem, and the process got started.
As anyone following the issue knows, things picked up steam last November, when a neighbor complained about the smell coming from East Side farm HausBar’s compost pile. Owners of the farm had been slaughtering and composting chickens, a legal practice in Austin, and something went awry in the compost pile one day. The citizen complained to the City, but it wasn’t until he took his issue to the Austin American-Statesman that it got much attention.
Once everyone started looking into what was and wasn’t allowed though, the confusion came in. In fact, HausBar was out of compliance with only one part of the current code, which says an urban farm can only have one dwelling; however, HausBar is actually zoned SF-3, which allows two dwellings.
“This is one example of how the current code creates confusion,” said Vickery. “Had the situation at HausBar Farm not occurred earlier this year, I believe the Board would have made recommendations regarding the land development code for urban agriculture another time.”
Carol Ann Sayle, co-owner of Boggy Creek Farm, said the issue might have been avoided if the City had acted quickly on the complaint, rather than waiting for the media to get involved.
“The farmers want the code update to be passed … So to make the farms happy, pass the code update,” she said. “To keep 99 percent of the neighbors happy, the city should act immediately on any of their complaints to make sure the farms obey the codes.”