Sacramento City council set to vote on urban agriculture law

Urban Agriculture Ordinance could transform vacant lots into community gardens

Sacramento Urban Agriculture Coalition member Paul Trudeau hopes that the city’s new rules will mean less blighted empty lots and more community or urban gardens.

Sacramento Urban Agriculture Coalition member Paul Trudeau hopes that the city’s new rules will mean less blighted empty lots and more community or urban gardens.

photo by steven chea

Kau Vue’s parents have always grown their own fruits and vegetables, whether they lived in a house or even an apartment. Farming is a part of Hmong culture, Vue says, and provides “exercise and extra little income now and then.” His parents, who live in Rio Linda, sell at farmers markets, although their travel expenses sometimes negate any profit.

But on March 17, city council will vote on a new ordinance that would allow the Vue family to sell their produce right in front of their home.

The Urban Agriculture Ordinance will make it easier for farmers in the city to get their produce on to community tables. As Matt Read with the Sacramento Urban Agriculture Coalition explained, the ordinance will “allow urban agriculture in all its forms.”

Read hopes this will encourage new economic opportunities for urban farmers while also improving individual health, as well as potentially transforming urban landscapes. The new law also would repurpose residential and commercial lots to allow for urban-agricultural practices and the sale of produce at temporary agriculture stands.

As the law exists now, Sacramentans can grow produce but can’t sell it to restaurants, or even to neighbors. Effectively, the city prohibits the distribution of its freshest, most local produce. The law also disallows farming on unsanctioned urban lots.

This is why more than 30 community groups formed the Urban Agriculture Coalition in 2013, according to Read. Their goal was to advocate for better access to healthy foods. And, since May, SUAC—comprised of educators, environmentalists, food producers, health and housing advocates—has worked closely with city-directed staff to create an exhaustive 300-plus-page ordinance.

Read believes the new law will allow people to get into farming by reducing the cost of entry. Sacramentans who can’t afford to purchase a 100-acre agricultural zone can sell what they grow from their home.

But SUAC member Paul Trudeau believes “the biggest transformation will be seeing vacant lots, which are trash magnets anyway, become gardens.”

SUAC is also currently preparing a separate county ordinance that will offer tax incentives to use residential and commercial lots for agricultural purposes, such as community gardens.

Landowners who enter a five-year contract with the city to use property for agricultural purposes will be taxed at a reduced rate. Trudeau believes this incentive also “could have the effect of bringing pesticide use down,” since it would require landowners to comply with state regulation of pesticides.

Simply put, he says the tax incentive gives landowners a reason to rent out their vacant lots, while the Urban Agriculture Ordinance, which allows the on-site sale of produce, offers residents a reason to farm them.

Sure, non-permitted forms of urban agriculture already exist, and often city rules go unenforced. Code enforcement can’t knock on every door to discover who’s selling persimmons on the sly.

Trudeau acknowledges that not-up-to-code farming happens often, even openly. But that doesn’t mean lawlessness runs amok in community gardens—some folks just sell what they grow where they grow it. “This ordinance will just make the law in compliance with reality,” he explained.

But Read pointed out that a lot of growers don’t expand their business because of the existing laws. “For a lot of farmers, violating zoning codes keeps them from growing their business,” he said. “They can’t get insurance and, technically, they shouldn’t be able to get a business license.”

Trudeau is one example of an urban agriculturalist slipping between the cracks. He operates an aquaponics business from his home, and sells directly to a single restaurant—an activity technically not permitted by city code. And yet the city not only gave Trudeau a business license, they’ve also renewed it yearly.

“If you interpret the zoning code, agriculture isn’t allowed in residential areas, but the zoning codes don’t exactly conform to what I’m doing,” Trudeau said. Still, he admitted that he was surprised when the city approved his application for a business license. Under the proposed Urban Agriculture Ordinance, all residential farmers will have the opportunity to sell what they grow.

Temporary agricultural stands are the heart of SUAC’s proposed new rules. These will allow urban farmers to sell produce on-site at their gardens between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m., after which the stands must be dismantled.

Some council members have expressed concerns that temporary stands will become a civic blight. But according to Read, other cities have passed similar ordinances and “their experience has borne out that these [stands] don’t become nuisances.”

Councilman Allen Warren, who represents the Vue family’s north Sacramento district, home to a large constituent of the Hmong community, traveled with constituents earlier this year to Southeast Asia, where he saw “firsthand the role these markets play,” he said.

Warren believes the ordinance will benefit his district, a designated food desert, by keeping food local. “It’s a healthy practice to manage and nurture agriculture and farming and to have fresh fruit and vegetables accessible in our community so folks don’t have to drive to buy groceries,” Warren said.

He and others say the ag stands create some issues, but shouldn’t be a problem. “There needs to be minimum standards, because you’re putting people in business who have never been in business.” For instance, if somebody slips at a stand, “is that a city liability or a homeowner liability?” he asked.

Councilman Jay Schenirer’s chief of staff, Joseph Devlin, understands concerns about potential blight and regulation. But he believes something like a downloadable PDF, “something easy to obtain and something that isn’t a big administrative headache,” will be an easy regulatory and education solution.

Devlin said there’s a deeper concern to communities than whether or not food stands potentially create blight. “Food deserts, lack of economic opportunity … lack of access to healthy foods—the opportunities [of the ordinance] outweigh the fears,” he said.

If council approves the ordinance next week, it will go into effect 30 days later. After that, the next step for Read and SUAC is to inform the community how the ordinance works.

Read says that unless the community knows how the ordinance benefits them, it’s only words on paper.