Sunday, June 16, 2013

Empty Lots, City Codes

First of all, let me just say that the video above gets me very excited! A group taking action, doing exactly the thing I dream of; growing food on empty lots. Though I dream most of the lot right across from my house, I have craned my neck many times looking at all the empty lots scattered throughout this city. There are so, so many. Just sitting there, large swatches of grass and weeds, filled with so much potential. I have a crazy vision of each one of those empty lots becoming a food oasis, providing nutrition and community connections to neighborhoods all over my city. I need to find a way to get involved with this group, definitely. 

Secondly, digging deeper and researching shows me that there are some real hurdles to successful urban gardening on empty lots.

Last summer we had a cookout with Craig's family, and his mom's boyfriend Tom came over. As we chatted by the gate in the backyard, I started talking about my pipe dream of owning the empty lot across the street. At that time I had a very ambitious mental picture of everything I'd do with that lot if it ever were mine to play with; fence it in, have chickens, a shed, different areas designated for different things. Maybe even a couple goats (I threw that in for the shock factor, even if I was only half kidding). I was basing a lot of my mental picture on a 'map' that I had studied, for hours on end, in the book Essential Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter.

Tom shot down the ideas rather quickly. "You can't build a shed on an empty lot. Or a fence. Hell, you can't even get access to water. How you gonna water your garden over there? How you planning to pull all that off?"

I cockily answered I'd just do it. Let someone try to come and tear it down or give me a ticket. I only half believed him when he started going on about codes, but it turns out he is absolutely correct. I found an article in Fort Wayne Monthly back in May that described exactly those codes Tom told me about.

Bottom line in the article: growing food is fine. Building anything, according to code, is not allowed on a lot that does not have a house on it.

I tried to find the article online, so I could copy and paste here, but it's no where to be found. So I'll tear the article out and put it in my garden binder, and here I'll just highlight the parts that discuss city code (I thought about typing the whole article, but then my wrists heard the rumor and screamed in revolt).

Knowing that I have city codes to deal with hardly deters me, however. I don't need fences or sheds to grow food. Just the ground. I've scaled my ambition down a bit to something more realistic to start with. If I can get the guts to even speak with my neighbor who owns the empty lot, I will ask her permission to simply grow a garden, nothing else. And, like this article alludes to, the codes are subject to appeal, and ultimately, change. If enough of us want and need to use empty lots to grow food within the city limits, and decide we need extras on those lots like tool sheds, fences, and water hookups, then there may just have to be some changes in the codes. I can feel the changes bubbling, and I'm thrilled that I'm not the only one ready to ride the waves!

From "Urban Gardens Grow" by Bonnie Blackburn in Fort Wayne Monthly:

"Scattered across the older parts of Fort Wayne are empty lots where homes and businesses once stood. Quite a bit of public expense (to clear condemned buildings and keep the lots mowed) and private effort (many good-hearted neighbors mow and tend to the lots before the public mowing crews can get there) goes toward keeping these lots from damaging their neighborhoods with blights, some places more effectively than others."

"And then there are the people who see opportunity in these empty places, people like Clint Kelly and his merry band of gardeners in Better Fort Farms. To them, these forsaken lots offer the promise of fresh food, fresh air and fresh life, not to mention a delicious tomato or two."

Hurdles to urban gardening on these empty lots? Indiana's unpredictable weather, possibility of contaminated soil, and: "Zoning. The Catherine Kasper Place land was already zoned for agricultural purposes, which meant the group was able to put up a shed and a fence and add water taps. The plots owned by A Better Fort, however, have yet to receive that blessing. The group's Clint Kelly said he anticipates zoning changes that will allow the work by this summer. "

"Kim Bowman is the executive director of the combined Fort Wayne and Allen County land use managment office, within the county Department of Planning services. It's her department that oversees zoning for the area."

" 'Urban gardens means different things to different people. I buy a property at a tax sale, i want to grow veggies or whatever, I can do that. If you can grow grass, then you can grow vegetables and that type of thing. Things start to shift when people want a water tap, or put up a shed or fence,' Bowman said. 'In the city, it's different. In an urban area there are different rules becuase what you do impacts different people.' "

"There are no specific zoning laws that directly address community garden, Bowman said. The current rules say that gardens are permiteed, as long as no structures or other improvements (such as water taps or electricity) are put onto a site that's zoned residential without the proper zoning permits. however, a site without a standing house cannot have a shed or other improvements without zoning approval through the Board of Zoning Appeals."

"There's no doubt that more of these gardens are, shall we say, sprouting up. And with the growth in gardens will likely come a change in the rules, Bowman said. 'It's something we want to promote. We want to encourage urban gardening, but we have to make sure it's compliant with our oridinance. It's a great concept and a great idea, but when you start drilling down into it, it can get complicated."

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