Friday, July 26, 2013

Meeting with the City and the Future of Urban Farming

Early in the week, a meeting took place between City officials from the Department of Land Use, our attorney, an architect neighbor helping us resolve our building violations, and myself.

City officials were extremely helpful in guiding us through the various permit applications we need to fill out, and agreed to grant us ample time to correct all the building violations on the property. City officials walked us through the various options available to us in order to operate the farm within the existing framework of the City zoning codes and Home Occupation ordinance.

Our first step is to re-apply for a Home Occupation License (a business license to operate a business in residential neighborhood).  Given how the Home Occupation Ordinance is written (see ordinance here), we can only have 2 volunteers at all times working at the farm, in addition to Dominique and myself.

The Home Occupation Ordinance also states that the activities of the business shall not generate more traffic and parking that would normally be happening in a residential neighborhood.  In our Home Occupation License application, we will be requesting that we be allowed to host 2-3 groups per week of up to 12 people for up to 2 hours. 

This is our first step in getting back on track with operating with volunteers and hopefully be granted the right to welcome a few groups during the week.  The Home Occupation License process is subject to comments from residents residing within 150 feet of the Home Occupation.  They will be notified by certified mail.

We have been assured that agriculture use is permitted within residential zoning.  Whether we will be granted the right to welcome groups and whether neighbors will object, is yet to be determined.

Our next endeavor is to draft a petition to request that the City Council amend city codes to support and protect urban agriculture in residential zoning.  Once such a petition is drafted, we will notify you so that you can help us gather signatures.

All and all, I feel optimistic.  As difficult and uncertain as our situation has been, the support that we have been receiving has been heart-warming.  I want to express my deepest gratitude to our legal council, the numerous neighbors who have sent letters of support, and the organizations (Santa Fe Farmers Market Institute and the Santa Fe Farmers Market) who have offered to endorse a petition requesting an amendment to the City codes to support urban agriculture.  I also want to express my gratitude to my friend Jay Tallmon, the owner of the property where Gaia Gardens operates.  His support and faith in our project from the minute we met, has been undying.  Without his generosity, there would be no Gaia Gardens and certainly no conversation on the topic of urban agriculture in Santa Fe!

We still live in a relatively free country and people are entitled to disagree.  The neighbors who have driven the City to restrict our activities are simply exercising their right to ask the City to enforce its codes as they are currently written.  The City officials coming to inspect the property for potential violations of such codes and issuing Notices of Violations, are simply doing their duties as enforcers of the codes.

The question is whether the codes that the neighbors wish the City to enforce are relevant to suit the needs of the time we currently live in.  The concerns and outrage expressed in the newspaper articles, and the numerous editorials and letters to the editor, seem to indicate that a great majority of the public would like codes to be less restrictive to urban farming in residential zoning.

We completely understand that a residential neighborhood cannot accommodate certain businesses and as a result many businesses have been confined to commercial neighborhoods.  However,  shouldn’t a farm, respectfully operated, be embraced in a residential neighborhood as a source of well being, not just for the residents but the wildlife such as birds and bees as well?

Many cities around the country have passed ordinances to encourage and support urban agriculture. From the Sustainable Cities Institute website: "Local governments can use urban agriculture as a tool to address many financial, health, and environmental issues.  For example, agriculture in and close to major cities can help the environment by, among other things, reducing the distances food travels.  Community gardens keep people active, while providing them with natural, locally grown food.  Municipal policies can help community gardeners make money by allowing them to sell excess produce.  Moreover, community gardens can beautify neighborhoods and serve as a focal point that promotes resident interaction".

Santa Fe already has a very well crafted Sustainable Plan that addresses Urban Agriculture.  Because Gaia Gardens is the first urban farm in the City limit, we are bumping into outdated codes that ought to be updated following the recommendations outlined in the Santa Fe Sustainable Plan of 2008.  These issues must be addressed if urban agriculture is to ever flourish, as it has in many cities around the US.  We presently find ourselves and the farm in a position of simply maintaining/demonstrating, within legal parameters, that an urban farm can be a beneficial asset to a neighborhood by providing a hub for community building, neighborhood interaction, children education and the fostering of a healthy urban ecosystem.

It is now up to all of us to make sure such a thing happens.  We’ve done our work in raising awareness, setting a good example and educating the public and children on the importance of locally grown food.

This topic will certainly bring opposition from people not yet convinced that the possibility exists to collectively engage in an evolutionary process TOGETHER.  If we are to be resilient as a community in the face of an impeding food crisis precipitated by climate change, environmental degradation, as well as a collapse of conventional agriculture due to top soil depletion and chemical fertilizer overuse, we must join forces to create a truly sustainable Santa Fe.

The voice of the people opposing changes in residential zoning codes to accommodate urban farming should be heard.  Their need to feel protected against unruly, noisy or even smelly urban farming activities are valid and should be addressed, as they are, in all new ordinances around the country regarding urban agriculture.

My gut feeling is that the times are ripe for a healthy debate about what kind of city and culture we wish to now co-create and live in.  Has the model of suburbia truly been successful and is it nourishing to our selves and community to continue living in neighborhoods where there is no interactions between neighbors, and rules are so tight that life itself is squeezed out?

Or can we envision neighborhoods where children are once again safe and free to play/explore, neighbors have welcoming places to gather, while community gardens and urban farms are supported to exist and flourish?  As we consider the current paradigm shift, these elements are critical in generating a renewed wealth measured by friendship, shared resources, and a spirit of inclusion and collaboration.

I personally love what we have been able to create in a very short time-a community as diverse, colorful, multi-generational and multi-ethnic as this city is.

The work has just begun.

I believe we can use the good will we have created to invite City Councilors, mayoral candidates and the public at large to consider that the immense benefits that urban agriculture provide far outweigh the ungodly sight of a group of volunteers laughing while weeding the garden, a bunch of toddlers visiting the garden once a week to play with the chickens, and an abundant, lush garden filled with nutritious organic produce and flowers.

We are resuming our volunteer days on Monday, Wednesday and Friday 7:00am-12:00pm.  Because we can only accommodate 2 volunteers at a time, you need to call (808-280-5203) or email Dominique, to pick a slot on our volunteer schedule.  With the rain, goat heads have arrived so we need help with weeding...

No comments:

Post a Comment