Second Ward, Minneapolis

This is the public policy forum of Minneapolis Second Ward (Green) City Council Member Cam Gordon and his staff. We use this space to talk about some of what Cam’s working on, explain his positions, and share a little of what life in City Hall is like. Please feel free to comment on posts, within certain ground rules. See our disclaimer, including ground rules, here:

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Urban Agriculture Text Amendments at Z&P

At the end of a record-breaking Zoning and Planning committee meeting (five and a half hours long!) the committee continued the Urban Agriculture zoning code text amdendments until its next meeting on March 22nd.  Before tabling it, the committee received some possible amendments that will be voted on on the 22nd.  You can find them here under item 6.

I'm going to briefly describe the four amendments and one motion below, and then offer some reaction and analysis of each.  The first three are from Council Member Tuthill:

1) Limit Hoop Houses to six feet, everywhere in the city.  (Hoop houses are temporary season extension structures that are often constructed in half-cylinder shapes from metal braces and covered in transparent plastic sheeting.)

Analysis: this is a bad idea, for many reasons.  Growers have been very clear that six foot tall hoop houses will not meet their needs, making this effectively a ban on hoop houses in the city.  As such, this amendment would significantly damage our chances of having any meaningful season extension - and given our cold climate, that's a real blow to the whole idea of local foods.

It's interesting to note that all other accessory structures (sheds, pergolas, etc) in Minneapolis can be up to 12 feet tall.  In fact, someone could construct a 12' tall hoop house in their backyard today.  These are available, as well: there are hoop house kits for sale in local stores that are over 6 feet tall.

One of CM Tuthill's key arguments is that we don't allow fences to be over 6' tall, and that we should protect people from seeing hoop houses over their neighbors fences.  It's true that we don't allow tall privacy fences in Minneapolis, but because we allow accessory structures to be 12' tall, many residents can see their neighbors' accessory structures today.  I have a childrens' play structure in my yard that's over 6' tall.  Should we really be protecting my neighbor from its unsightliness?

Lastly, this amendment ignores that there are different uses and different zoning districts in the city.  I would be open to a limited height for hoop houses in backyards, perhaps even as low as six and a half feet (the height of the commercially available versions).  But market and community gardens - whose whole purpose is to grow food - should be allowed more height, something like 10 feet.  And urban farms, which must be in industrial or commercial zones and which would be allowed to have much more intense uses, should be allowed the full 12 feet.

2) Reduce sale days at market gardens to two 72-hour periods every year

Analysis: This is also a bad idea.  The staff recommendation is 25 days, or about once a week during the growing season.

Many market gardeners will bring most of their produce to sell it elsewhere - farmers markets, restaurants, grocery stores, etc.  But some market gardeners will also want to have some limited opportunities to sell directly to their neighbors.  This amendment would effectively ban that.

One argument CM Tuthill has made is that this is the current zoning restriction on yard sales (twice per year, 72 hours at a time).  This argument doesn't work, though, for a very simple reason: farmstands are not yard sales.  Two 72-hour garage sales per year are enough for most residents.  We're hearing loud and clear from growers that a similar time wouldn't be sufficient for them.  Yard sales have an arguably greater impact on their neighbors, with racks of clothing and tables of other items out on the lawn.  Farm stands would be prohibited from taking place in the required front yard, meaning that any customer would have to walk up onto the lot, rather than being able to buy something right on the sidewalk.  Additionally, the farm stand is only allowed to sell products grown on site. Holding yard sales and farmstands to the same standard just doesn't make sense.

Lastly, it's important to recognize one of the key motivations of some market gardeners and their supporters.  In addition to increasing production of local produce, they want to increase access to it.  Even with the mini markets and the City's work on produce in corner stores, there are still parts of our city with too little access to produce.  One way that other cities (like Seattle) have addressed this problem is by allowing market gardeners in those communities to sell directly to their neighbors.

I might be willing to compromise down from 25 to a slightly smaller number of days, but two is just unreasonable.

3) Establish material standards for raised beds in front yards.  Raised beds would be required to be made of "wood, brick, masonry, landscape timbers or synthetic lumber," and would not be allowed to be made of "wire, chicken wire, rope, cable, railroad ties, utility poles, or any other similar materials."  Any wood used would be required to be "resistant to decay."

Analysis: this idea is fine in concept, but I do have some concerns about the specifics.  Having standards makes sense, especially if there have been concerns about some residents' choices of materials for their raised beds.

However, some of the specific language might be overly restrictive.  I don't see a problem with the list of prohibited materials - ruling out both highly permeable materials and wood treated by toxic chemicals seems smart - but the list of required materials might not be inclusive enough.  (Also, if we have a list of prohibitions, why do we need a list of requirements as well?)

I'll give a concrete example.  Actually, it's a metal example.  Russ Henry, a local landscape company owner and member of both the Minneapolis Food Council and Environmental Advisory Committee, has installed some beautiful planters on the Seward Coop's property and boulevard.  They're made of what seems to be iron, and have a very interesting rusty red finish.  It seems to me that CM Tuthill's list of materials would rule out these lovely planters, and possibly even require them to be removed.  I represent Seward, and have received no complaints about those planters.  In fact, I've heard from people that they really like them.  If we're going to adopt a list of allowable materials, it has to be comprehensive enough to include these sorts of creative solutions that don't cause problems and complaints.

Lastly, I have concerns about using the phrase "resistant to decay" when talking about wood.  The only way to make most wood that is in direct contact with soil resistant to decay is to treat it with toxic chemicals.  The same impulse that seems to have driven the ban on utility poles and railroad ties should pull us back from enacting this requirement.

Luckily, this is something that the Council has just addressed on a different subject - composting.  One of the recommendations from the composters was that the City stop requiring (or even seeming to require) green-treated lumber in the construction of compost bins, due to the concern that it will contaminate the compost.  There is an extremely simple solution: rather than requiring that the wood be resistant to rot, just require that it not be rotten.  This gives our staff the same capacity to make someone fix a rotted raised bed, but doesn't indicate that folks should build their beds out of lumber that might cause problems.


I also put out an amendment and a staff direction.

The staff direction was for Planning staff to ensure that the Temporary Use Permit application require prospective farmstand operators (selling food from their market garden) to notify their near neighbors, the neighborhood organization, and their Council Member's office.  I believe staff would've required much of this anyway, but I wanted to make sure it's clear that folks will hear about these activities before they happen, and that they'll have a chance to have a conversation with market gardeners.  My hope is that conversation between neighbors can disarm any friction a farmstand might cause.

The amendment would establish a maximum size for market gardens.  The staff proposal is for market gardens up to 10,000 square feet of growing area to be permitted uses.  This means that they won't have to ask anyone's permission or apply for anything, just go ahead and grow.  Above 10,000 square feet, staff are recommending that market gardens require a Conditional Use Permit (or CUP).  This is a process that costs over $500 and requires a public hearing, and gives the City the chance to place conditions on an activity.

I'd heard that some of my concerns about the maximum size of market gardens.  One suggestions was to limit them to 10,000 square feet in low-density residential areas.  I heard from growers that that would be a major problem for them; some market gardeners are already pursuing leases at lots with more growing space than 10,000 square feet.  I also heard from growers that the largest conceivable market garden in the foreseeable future is one acre. 

So I have drafted an amendment that would continue to permit market gardens from 0-10,000 square feet, require a CUP for gardens between 10,000 and 43,000 square feet, and cap the maximum size at 43,000 square feet.

Again, all of these will be discussed in greater detail at the Zoning and Planning committee meeting on March 22nd. It is also possible that more amendments could be brought forward then. Assuming that the item is moved forward by the committee, it could also be amended at the subsequent Council meeting on March 30th.


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