Zoning and urban agriculture.

The city of Philadelphia is currently rewriting its zoning code. City Councilman Brian O’Neil proposed an amendment to the code that would require urban farmers and gardeners to obtain a “special exception” to garden or farm in mixed-use commercial areas. Under the “special exception” proposal, urban farms and gardens would have to apply for and receive permission from the city’s zoning board in order to use the land for growing.

Applications would include:

  • paying a $250 fee.
  • scheduling a hearing in front of the zoning board.
  • posting a notice on the property with the time and date of the hearing.
  • bringing neighbors to testify at the hearing and respond to opponents, if necessary,
  • and prove that the proposed use of the land for urban agriculture is consistent with the zoning code. Justice for the gardens, p1.

Another councilwoman on the board, in support of the amendment, stated that “you just can’t go into a neighborhood and have your way without discussing it with the neighbors,” and that, in some cases, “outside people . . . set up community gardens without consulting” the residents of the surrounding community. Id. at p2.

Community garden proponents, however, argued that this special exception regulation would pose an unreasonable restriction on gardeners. City bureaucracy can be very difficult to navigate, and many city residents who would otherwise devote time and energy to a beautification project will be scared away by the hearings and other onerous requirements, they argue. Of the 350+ gardens and farms in Philadelphia, more than 200 of them are in mixed-use commercial zones under the proposed code.

The Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia’s Garden Justice Legal Initiative organized 29 other groups and many individuals to mobilize against the bill. In response, City Councilman O’Neill released a statement saying that he would withdraw his “special exception” legislation. Councilman backs off on community garden zoning amendment.

Do you have a question about how local land use law affects your neighborhood project? Contact Community Law Center!

Baltimore is also rewriting its zoning code: check out the proposed new code at rewritebaltimore.org.

Posted on by Becky Witt

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