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Dealing with Zoning

Courtesy of James K., Virtually Green, San Francisco, CA 

Over the years I've helped a number of neighborhood gardeners and farmers get variances to zoning or laws. Zoning laws are a mixed blessing. While they prohibit your residential neighbor from doing auto wrecking or a hog farm in her front yard, they also may contain legacy regulations that prohibit small-scale food growing for sale or even front yard gardening. Your encounter with a city staffer might result in nothing happening or a subsequent notice or visit.

Most of the regs that prohibit growing for sale or front yard gardens were enacted early in the last century, when ethnic minorities were moving into neighborhoods and brought their home market garden traditions with them. Their front yards were often not neatly mowed lawns with trimmed shrubbery, but rather wall to wall veggie beds and trellises of beans and berries that outraged prissy uptight neighbors. These laws are often legacies of ethnic discrimination.

Any effort to rescind such regs should remember this. Heck, my Portuguese/Italian grandma's front yard was one such, plus both side yards and the back yard. She had an adobe bread baking oven in the back, chickens and turkeys, the whole nine yards. Her town was largely ethnic minorities so this was OK, but the next town over was not and so. Her friends there were unable to do anything other than ornamentals in their front yards.

Go online to the city website, or visit city library, and look through the city zoning ordinances to see if there's anything prohibiting you from doing your home farm. There may be nothing prohibiting you. You may only need a simple business license or permit that's a formality to get.

Now that you may be on the planning department radar I suggest a nice polite visit to the city to discuss what you're doing. But don't start with the planning dept. Ask at the front desk which department  would be the right one to talk with about healthy food, green jobs and food security? Go talk to them and say Hi. Be friendly and share your excitement about what you're doing that's so obviously good for your city. Stop in and visit with your city council people too. It's not unlikely one of them lives nearby too. Invite city dept and elected officials to come and visit your urban farm. Have local news and TV reporters drop by too. Suggest you'd like to do city-sponsored tours of your home farm to encourage others to garden and farm. In other words, various people in the city government will love what you're doing and be prepared to say so and support you. This certainly won't hurt your CSA membership either: I bet one or more city staff and officials join as members!

Call your local gardening and farming groups too and ask for their help and advice. You can find yourself with loads of good friends who pitch in on this issue, and join your CSA and show up for volunteer work as well on your farm. Lots of good things can come of this situation.

If you get any visit or notice from a city planning department or other such enforcement individual, be polite. My first year out of college I worked at a city planning department as an aide. I can tell you that like pretty much any group or organization, it had its share of good people and jerks. Some are eager to solve problems and help people do innovative and worthy things. Others are generally depressed individuals who act out their own personal unhappiness at your expense. Be courteous and helpful even if perhaps they aren't.

You can use your new contacts with other city staff and officials to work the system to your advantage, including the city Planning Commission. If you are energetic and sincere it's not unlikely that a city council person will author a Proclamation honoring and supporting people who garden and farm in the city.

Most of the above is also just good marketing for your home urban farm. It can also be loads of fun.

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