Urban Ag Zoning Change Update

May 13, 2011 at 8:57 am

city farm

Last time I posted on the Local Beet, I wrote about some of the contentious issues with the Urban Agriculture Zoning Change debate over Mayor Daley’s proposed amendment to Section 17-2-0207 of the City’s Zoning Ordinance.  These new provisions are intended to foster growth of urban agriculture throughout the city.   As I explained in the post, the process to draft this legislation has not been without challenges or critics.   The legislation was drafted and revised with input from the Chicago Food Policy Advisory Council, Advocates for Urban Agriculture, and other community groups and local farmers. 

Having (re-)finalized the legislation, it was referred to the Zoning Committee, to be heard at their January meeting.  Later it was removed from the agenda and did not re-appear on any agenda since.  While it was not on the agenda for the April 26th meeting, there were rumors that it was going to be brought up, and so the urban agriculture crowd was in strong attendance at the meeting, and placed many calls to aldermen before the meeting.  In particular, they asked their aldermen for an open discussion of urban agriculture and re-consideration of various points of the amendment.  It was brought up at the meeting –one of the first agenda items, but was deferred from discussion.  This means that it will be deferred until the Chair of the Zoning Committee (Alderman Solis) calls it back to the table.  Alderman Solis’ office reports that they are waiting on a replacement document from Department of Zoning and Land Use, and that it will “most likely” be on the agenda for May 26th, 2011.  (The Chicago Food Policy Advisory Council will host a panel on the proposed amendment at their Spring Quarterly Meeting on May 20th.

With a major shift in City Hall to occur this month, there is an unknown factor that leaves some worried about fate of all the hard work that has been done on this legislation to date.  Some advocate for passage of the legislation as it stands to promote agriculture in Chicago; others would accept the legislation if they thought that the process to amend it “down the road” would be simple, and others feel that it would be a mistake to pass the legislation without significant changes.  It is hard to reach a consensus because there are many different forms of urban agriculture and the legislation can hurt or help, depending on which side of the fence you’re standing on.

In February, Advocates for Urban Agriculture sent a list of questions to Andy Mooney, Commissioner of the Department of Housing and Economic Development, about the zoning that they hoped would clarify some fuzzy issues.  The City’s response (PDF) to these concerns rests primarily on protecting the character of neighborhoods and the rights of citizens –some of whom may not want a large vegetable farm in their quiet, residential neighborhood.  I have outlined some of the city’s responses to AUA’s questions and concerns below.

Regarding size limits

The size limits are primarily intended to protect the character of an existing residential or commercial area of a given block.  The City determined size limitations for community gardens based on an assessment of existing urban and community gardens.  They determined that the vast majority of community gardens are within their 18,750 square foot limit.  Additionally, there can be more than one community garden on a block; the size limit only applies to individual gardens.  The size limits are smaller than some established farms in the City of Chicago, but those farms were originally established with a variance, and future farms could also seek a variance, with community support and aldermanic approval.   Any existing community garden that is larger than the size limit will be classified as legal non-conforming use. 

Sales of goods on-site

Community groups advocated strongly for the allowing the sale of goods on-site as a way to increase food access to the many food deserts across the city.  The Department of Zoning and Land Use Planning agreed to revise the original proposal to allow “incidental” sales on-site at community gardens and has committed to creating a FAQ guide to interpreting the ordinance.

Agriculture as a temporary use

Community groups have requested the consideration of agriculture as a temporary use (similar to how City Farm was established); they have alluded to other business uses that are permitted in residential areas with hopes of including agriculture as well; and there has been a question of vacant lots and why agriculture is not permitted when a vacant lot is.  Vacant lots are not a land use in the Chicago Zoning Ordinance and therefore are neither permitted nor prohibited.  Commercial uses that are allowed in residential zoning districts are of a service nature and do not involve sales of goods to the general public, in contrast with a commercial farm.  The city clarified that there is no temporary use permit, and did not indicate any intention to create one. 

Distinction between non-profit farms and commercial enterprises and rooftop gardens

Large scale rooftop operations are not addressed in the code, and this worries companies who had planned to use industrial warehouses to begin “greening” and feeding the city.  In Seattle, they allow rooftop greenhouses to exceed building height limits, when it is for food production.  Additionally, the proposed amendment does not mention aquaponics operations.   There are business owners in Chicago who worry that this could put a halt to their development plans.  I spoke with two different business owners who were planning projects in Chicago and their lawyers have said that their projects could be illegal under the existing code, and the amendment would not help them.   The city has clarified that commercial gardens will be able to operate indoors and on rooftops in the C1 – M3 and all of the PMDs, and outdoors in the C1 – M3 zoning districts and in PMDs #9, 10, and 13.  Community gardens will be able to operate indoors or outdoors.

There is no distinction between non-profit farms and commercial gardens because the City views them both to have a more significant impact on nearby neighborhoods in terms of scale and operation.  If a non-profit group encounters financial hindrances or burdens created by the code, they can request an Administrative Adjustment from the Office of the Zoning Administrator, which may allow for reduction of some requirements if there is a hardship of operation.   San Francisco distinguishes between “neighborhood agriculture” and “urban industrial agriculture” by size rather than primary use.  Any site one acre or larger is considered an urban industrial agriculture site.

Composting concerns

There is also concern over the wording that compost operations may not accept waste from off-site locations, and they may not distribute the resulting compost soil off-site.  This is not a change to the current legislation; this reflects the City’s existing Composting Ordinance, passed in June of 2007.  The proposed amendment would have no effect on this ordinance.  In January of 2010, Illinois’ SB 99 Composting Bill took effect, which allows food waste to be commercially composted in Illinois.  It changes the distinction of food waste from “garbage” to “food scrap” and allows facilities that process landscape waste to also compost food waste – up to 10% of total waste without a new permit.  All city and state compost restrictions are to prevent poorly managed sites from posing a health risk and /or a nuisance.

While not without fault, the new zoning provisions should help advance many urban agriculture projects and community gardens throughout the city, and increase awareness of the benefits of urban agriculture.  An open process to develop the amendment is tricky, but hopefully these efforts will produce a stronger piece of legislation.