Sunday, December 5, 2010

Would You Like To Be Sued For Growing Food?

I do have a great interest in urban agriculture and growing more of our food locally, but I hope that nothing like what happened in Clarkston, Ga. ever happens here.

A local landscaper bought a piece of property, upon which former owners had grown vegetables -at a profit- and set about raising a hobby garden, in the back yard. True it was a nearly two acre back yard, but it was a hobby garden. I know several folks, who if the had almost two aces, would put in a wide variety of hobby scenarios (flower gardens, outdoor model trains, etc.) and I believe that all of them would be legal. But this gentleman raised so much edible crops that he couldn't give it all away and resorted to local markets.

That is where the local zoning laws got him. His land was producing too much for the zone. His lot was apparently considered a commercial operation and therefore, not permitted in the zone. Is it possible that such a thing could happen here?

A former neighbor has a house and they own the vacant lot next door. There used to be another vacant lot on the other side, and this neighbor maintained gardens in both spaces, as well as the back half of a parcel approximately a half a block away. This fellow's passion was flowers but I remember some vegetables along the way. None of these spaces could be thought of as commercial but they could supply a good portion of the surrounding households with nutrition if it needed to. Fact is, I don't think that it went afoul of the law, either then or now.

In the case in Ga., the gentleman was eventually allowed to get a zone change, but has been saddled with the expensive fines and penalties as well as the cost of the zone change.

To those of you, who like me, wish to see more urban agriculture and more locally grown food, we must be cognizant of the laws and the possibilities under them. We must also strive to make them allow for future situations and not just restrict past abuses (real or imagined). Zoning laws, by and large, are not written with backyard food production in mind.
While many food activists cite urban agriculture as crucial to establishing locally sourced food systems, zoning laws present challenges. What distinguishes outlaw tomato plants from a legitimate commercial operation is not always clear.
Another point of contention could be the raising of chickens(see what they are doing here), which I don't think is against any local zoning laws currently, although most herd animals are prohibited. The keeping of horses, even inside the Urban Services Area limitation may be allowed.
Cluck (a Sarasota Fl. chicken advocacy group), which has been active for a year and a half and has about 300 supporters, says chickens would make Sarasota more attractive for a younger, hipper crowd. Children who think their food grows at the supermarket can see where it really comes from.
Where should we Lexingtonian's stand on this subject?

1 comment:

Hilary Baumann said...

On chickens: Lexington's law legally allows chickens but no roosters. An article in Southsider awhile ago on keeping chickens:

In regards to urban farming / business: if someone grows enough food on their land to sell a small quantity I would hope that rules and regulations would apply like any other home based business. Usually those laws are simply there so neighbors can enjoy some peace and quiet. So if, say, you were bringing in tractors at 5 in the morning waking up the neighbors, that would be a no no. Or having more than a certain number of employees or people showing up on the property regularly could also be a problem. I do not know at what point it would require a zoning change but it may still require a conditional use or variance IF done for a profit. If not done for a profit, respecting your neighbors goes a long way.

Quick info:

In Lexington, checking your zoning and use is as easy as visiting the PVA's website.

And the Fayette Urban County zoning ordinance can be found here (Article 8 is where you can check your zone):

Applying for a variance or conditional use:

I don't think a variance or conditional use is needed for a personal or not for profit garden.

I think the missing element in the article about the garden in Georgia has to do with business law more than zoning laws. I could be wrong, but I suspect that hiring people to work his garden was what got the man in GA in trouble. And it would have been different if he was not selling the resulting food. If he had been using it for personal use or giving it away, hiring someone to tend his garden would be more like hiring a maid for the house.

A business is still a business even if you can't fully support yourself with its income. Do you keep a separate bank account for your endeavor, do you track profits, deduct losses, or do you adjust your actions to improve profitability, OR have you made a profit (doesn't matter how small) on the activity for 3 of the last 5 years? These are just a few things that indicate it's no longer a hobby.

I live in an area with a lot of back yard gardens so they would have to go after a lot of people ... a lot of 1/4 acre lots with gardens enough to feed half a family or more. I'm not really worried about it here but it IS important to be aware.

"Victory gardens," community gardens and personal gardens will hopefully never be threatened here by zoning laws.

I do think farming the available land is a great idea not for profit or even for profit. I just think that if you're going to be making a profit of any kind it's prudent for you to do some research first.