City Council passes agricultural ordinance to encourage urban farming

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Anya Schultz/File

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Berkeley City Council passed a new agricultural ordinance that took effect Aug. 23, encouraging the growth of urban farming in the city.

The ordinance amended zoning laws that previously required private property owners to obtain a permit before establishing community gardens on their land. Under the new ordinance, these property owners can grow and sell their own food without a permit but will still have to comply with food safety laws, including the California Health and Safety Code, as first reported by Berkeleyside.

“The idea is that neighbors should be able to get together and garden, or even a single person should be able to grow a garden and go to the farmers market and sell their produce without the city getting involved,” Berkeley’s Land Use Planning Manager Steven Buckley said.

This new ordinance was created to increase access to fresh local produce, strengthen the “health and social fabric of communities” by supporting community gardens and further the Berkeley Climate Action Plan goal of supporting efforts to “build more complete and sustainable local food production and distribution systems.”

Rob Bennaton, UC Cooperative Extension’s Bay Area urban agriculture adviser, said this ordinance is “positive all around” for the Climate Action Plan.

“By encouraging growing space, it’s ultimately increasing water holding capacity for storm water, improving air quality and keeping a slightly lower temperature at local levels,” Bennaton said.

Urban agriculture is distinguished by two categories in the ordinance — low-intensity and high-intensity. “Low-intensity” urban agriculture refers to small-scale farm operations such as community gardens that do not need permits, while “high-intensity” urban agriculture refers to high-production urban farms that still require permits.

According to Buckley, factors that characterize a project as low-intensity include a lack of pesticides, a small number of people on-site and only daylight hours of operation. He added that before this new ordinance, whether a farming project required a permit was judged on a case-by-case basis and was “confusing” for people seeking permits.

“This ordinance makes urban agriculture simpler and clearer,” Buckley said. “I think we had a policy in our general plan that goes back 10 to 15 years that said we support urban farming, but then we never really did anything to make that a reality.”

According to Bennaton, however, the primary hindrance preventing the creation of more community gardens is not the permit process but rather a lack of public and private land space with allowed access. He said this ordinance does not explicitly allocate parcels of land for community gardens but encourages private property owners to develop these gardens on their land by making the process easier.

“As we urbanize and densify on Earth, we are increasing the percentage of the population living in cities, which is often increasing the distance of our points of food consumption from our farmers,” Bennaton said. “This ordinance allows for hyperlocal production by minimizing limits but could more fully address questions of land access through the augmenting of an urban agricultural program like in other cities.”

Contact Amanda Bradford at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @amandabrad_uc.