Zoning for Zucchini

by Molly McCullagh

I’ve been hearing a lot recently about how Boston’s Mayor Menino has been trying out his figurative pitchfork and muck boots as an urban farmer.  Last summer he judged the aesthetics of community garden in his annual Garden Contest, opened a chicken farm on Long Island, attended the opening of a farm stand in Mattapan, and announced $375,000 in competitive grants funding for neighborhood garden projects.

I’m certainly excited to have such high-profile support for urban agriculture initiatives around the city, but we need to remember that it’s not just up to Mayor Menino to make these initiatives possible.  In fact, any land-based project in Boston (as in any other city) is limited by the underlying zoning of a certain parcel (see below for more on “zoning”).  The process to draft and accept zoning changes can be complex, a fact highlighted by the second in a series of community meetings for the city’s pilot urban agriculture project held in Dorchester last month.

On December 1st, representatives from the City of Boston’s Mayor’s Office, Department of Neighborhood Development, and Boston Redevelopment Authority were on hand to discuss the proposed zoning changes and request for proposals to farm four currently vacant lots in the Dorchester and Mattapan areas.  The Mayor’s Food Initiative hopes to increase access to healthy and affordable food and promote local food growing and processing as an economic development strategy.  The city has identified Dorchester and Mattapan as communities that can use both – jobs and quality food – and so hopes to open four plots, which range from 8,800 square feet to 20,000 square feet (about a quarter to a half acre), to farmers who will use the land for agricultural production.

“Zoning” refers to regulations that dictate what you can build and where.  The plots are currently zoned only for residential use – meaning that the only legally acceptable development would be a house.  These plots likely had a house on them in the past, but in order to now be used for legally used for agriculture only, the city would like to adopt an “overlay zone” to the residential zone so that the plot can legally be used for agricultural production.  The zoning language would automatically allow for the cultivation of plants to sell and for composting of materials grown on site.  Farmers would also potentially be able to raise certain animals (including chickens, goats, and bees) on the site, but this use would require a special hearing and approval by neighbors.

The meeting attracted a healthy turnout despite the rain, although the number of professionals/non-residents in attendance clearly overwhelmed the number community residents.  Lead staff from many Boston-area food systems groups were in the room; many work in the Dorchester area or focus on community and economic development and so have an interest in the outcome of this pilot initiative.  One attendee noted in his comment during the meeting that although he appreciated all the attention from “experts,” we must recognize that the experts already know enough to be accepting of the proposal, but it will take additional outreach and education to convince community members.

The meeting attendees raised a series of important considerations that likely require more attention before this project will receive support from both the community and Boston food system advocates.  Chief concerns centered around the potential for animals on site, the estimated economic impact, and possible existing soil contamination.

Although raising animals in cities has not been uncommon in the past – one resident spoke of his mother buying baby chicks at the local 5&10 store and raising them in the backyard until his uncle came to “disappear them” – community representatives reminded us that many current city residents expect a division between “city” and “country,” meaning they may not want to share their neighborhood with a rabbit or goat.

One attendee questioned the presenters’ statements about the total economic impact of the initiative; “I was curious about ‘jobs’ – plural.”  Many familiar with agriculture will appreciate the difficulty of making a living farming and are skeptical about the ability of quarter-acre plots to provide a full-time living for one, nevermind additional staff.

There is a strong concern over the contamination of the soil on the sites.  The soil on the sites has not been tested for contamination, but the organizers are working under the assumption that it is heavily polluted and is requiring a “geo-textile” barrier over the existing soil with new soil added on top – basically a large-scale raised bed.  This is an added cost to the farm operation or the

City (it was unclear which party would be responsible for initial construction costs), but the City’s representatives consider this a crucial step in ensuring the safety of food grown on the site.

Although I was attending the meeting for mostly educational purposes, one provision – related to compost – troubled me enough that I had to raise it during the meeting.  The zoning language states that compost is allowable but can only be created using materials made on site.  The main concern of organizers is that the site will become a dump site for waste, which would be unacceptable in a neighborhood setting, or that toxic materials (such as street leaves contaminated with automotive fluids) may be used and then contaminate any food grown on the site.  The concern that I expressed was that this limitation will lead to imbalanced compost piles – nitrogen-rich materials without carbon-rich materials will lead to anaerobic, rotting conditions and a noxious smell from emitted ammonia.  The presenters stated that farmers could employ tumblers that would contain and process the waste material, but I think that this is an economically impractical solution for the relatively large growing area.  Additionally, farmers will be allowed to use compost from the City of Boston’s composting facility, yet it is unclear if that compost excludes potentially contaminated leaves or not.

The organizers are hoping to have draft language for the zoning changes substantially vetted by the community and accepted by the Boston Zoning Board of Appeal over this winter.  Concurrently they will be accepting applications from potential farmers (including individuals and organizations) for the site.  If everything goes smoothly, they expect to plant in the spring of 2011.  They admit that this is an aggressive timeline and doesn’t allow for much delay from the schedule, which is often a challenge when the City, the community, and funding all have to come together.  The City’s representatives have done their homework by reviewing models of urban agriculture re-zoning in other cities, but this is one of the first examples of project combining economic development and urban agriculture that is being not only “allowed” (through re-zoning), but also being managed by a city, rather than a non-governmental agency.  We’ll have to wait and see what implications this has for the success of the farms, but if it’s done carefully, there is potential for this initiative show how urban agriculture can be a benefit to the economic and nutritional health and well-being of residents.

If you’re interested in learning more about the process, you’re welcome at the next public meeting which will be Wednesday, January 12, from 6:30-8:30 pm at the Great Hall, 6 Norfolk Street, Dorchester, MA. Contact Tad Read for more information (john.read.BRA@cityofboston.gov).

Molly McCullagh is in her third year of the Agriculture, Food and the Environment/Urban Environmental Planning dual degree program.

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