For the past six years, Novella Carpenter, author of Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, has been growing strawberries, broccoli, dinosaur kale, honey, goats, and more in a 4500-square-foot formerly vacant lot in a rundown part of Oakland known as Ghost Town. Earlier this week, she got a nasty shock when she found a City of Oakland official taking photos of her garden. He then kindly informed her that:
I'm out of compliance for "agricultural activities." I'm supposed to get a Conditional Use Permit for growing chard. The annual fee: $2500.
[He also] said they are going to use me as an example, and that I'll get fined around $5000 for non-compliance.
According to The Bay Citizen, Carpenter's lot is zoned for mixed commercial and residential use. Consulting the Planning Department provides little insight: The wording of Oakland's zoning regulations is pretty fuzzy, simply saying that permits can be required for crop and animal activities including "the raising of tree, vine, field, forage, and other plant crops, intended to provide food or fibers, as well as keeping, grazing, or feeding of animals for animal products, animal increase, or value increase."
Carpenter freely admits she does not have a permit or business license. As she explains on her blog:
Last year, when I bought my lot, I went to the planning department to find out what I needed to get a business license and all that stuff. The very nice planning person told me that by the spring, the City of Oakland would be changing the laws about urban agriculture in the city, so I should just wait. Guess that hasn't happened.
GOOD has covered efforts to reform urban zoning laws to allow people to grow food in the city before. But, as Novella Carpenter's example shows, a big part of the problem is that no one really knows what is or isn't allowed to be grown where right now—and thus where reform is most needed. Would it cost you $2,500 to grow chard in your neighborhood? How would you even go about finding that out?
Fortunately, this is a problem that you can help fix. The Grown in the City site recently launched a crowd-sourced interactive urban agricultural zoning map. You can simply click on a state to see a list of cities that have passed urban agriculture zoning ordinances, as well as a link to the text of the regulation. Thus far, it's a little thin, but you can help: If you live in or know of a community that is zoned to allow people to grow food, you can fill out a short form and upload the data, and the Grown in the City folks will add it to the map.
Why not use this as inspiration to find out what you're allowed to grown in your city today? And, if you don't like what you find, then ask your elected leaders to change the rules.
Photo: Ghost Town Farm, courtesy the Hayward Public Library.