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Amendment Threatens Urban Farms in Philly

Note: The following post was written by Jon McGoran, editor of Weavers Way Co-op's The Shuttle newsletter. You can find the full issue here. On December 13, 2012, less than four months after the widely anticipated implementation of the city’s brand new zoning code, City Council’s Committee on Rules has voted to approve an ordinance that undoes important aspects of the code, including the gains made for urban agriculture in Philadelphia. Introduced by Councilman Brian O’Neill, Bill 120917 creates restrictions on a range of uses in commercial mixed uses areas. Among these restrictions, the bill would only allow community gardening and market farming by  “special exception” on over one third of  the city’s commercially zoned lands. What does this mean for existing gardens? The affirmative vote by the Rules Committee immediately renders illegal approximately 20 percent of the urban farms and community gardens already in existence in the city. The amendment is scheduled to come to a vote by the full Council on January 24, 2013. In the meantime, since the bill is regarded as a “pending ordinance,” the city may begin enforcing the provisions of the bill immediately. If council votes in favor of the bill, the changes would become permanent. While the provision allowing farm or garden parcels with a special exemption is an improvement over the initial version of the amendment, which would prohibited gardening and farming outright, it is still an onerous process that would inhibit urban agriculture in Philadelphia. “The Special Exception process is not an ‘over the counter’ approval and requires quite a bit of administrative effort,” explained Eva Gladstein, Deputy Executive Director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. “The zoning applicant must: file an application for a ZBA hearing; notify the local RCO, near neighbors and the District Councilperson of the project; meet with the local RCOs and document the meeting; post notice of the ZBA hearing on the property for 21 days prior to the hearing; at the hearing, demonstrate that the proposed use is consistent with the zoning code and any applicable standards for the use; and if there is testimony at the hearing from the community that the impacts would be more than normally expected from that use, must provide evidence to overcome such testimony.” The amendment passed out of the Rules Committee on a four to three vote, despite almost unanimous testimony in opposition to the bill from an array of constituencies. The changes would prohibit new businesses such as auto shops, car rental and sales, gas stations, personal care homes, single- room residences, and group living from locating in commercial corridors. Joining urban farms and community gardens in requiring special exemptions would be transit stations and storage facilities. Prohibited outright, and thus requiring zoning variances, are businesses including auto shops, car rental and sales, gas stations, and personal care homes. “Philadelphians in neighborhoods throughout the city place a huge value on gardening and farming as food production, vacant land stewardship, and community building. Under the new zoning code, city policy began to reflect the commitment of the city’s residents. This dismantles progress made,” says Amy Laura Cahn, Skadden Fellow at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia’s Garden Justice Legal Initiative. What can you do? Contact your district council member and the at-large council members.
  1. Let council members know that gardening and farming matter to you.
  2. Encourage council members to keep the zoning code intact and rely on the anticipated one-year review to address concerns.
  3. Ask that they oppose City Council Bill 12917.
For more information on the zoning changes, click here.