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Tevlin: Bumper crop of 'nimbys' sprouts around plans for urban farms

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN
  • Star Tribune
  • February 28, 2012 - 10:13 PM

The first onions and alliums are already planted in this urban farmland, tucked into greenhouses or under grow lights in people's basements. Soon, the trays of delicate starts might be moved outside to "hoop houses" to begin to harden.

"We're getting close," said Eric Larsen, one of the investors in Stone's Throw Urban Farm. The company plants crops on two acres of land spread across 15 vacant lots in Minneapolis and St. Paul, from the Phillips neighborhood to Uptown to Frogtown.

Stone's Throw is part of the national movement toward urban agriculture. Minneapolis has many community gardens, but lacks regulations on land used to grow and sell food. In the absence of formal city approval of such "market farms," Stone's Throw and others have operated in the margins of city ordinances.

Now, supporters of urban ag are concerned that a vote of the Minneapolis Zoning and Planning Committee this Thursday might limit their future. There has been some community backlash, mostly in low-density neighborhoods such as Kenwood.

Cue visuals of scrawny granola crunchers toting sacks full of broccoli rabe and bok choy down placid streets guarded by little yellow plastic men ordering cars to "SLOW!"

While supporters fear amendments that would gut the plan, Council Member Meg Tuthill predicted "strictly tweaks, that's all."

Nobody seems to be against big gardens, per se. Many involved in this issue are good progressives. You know, people who are for density, unless perhaps it's next door, and for organic farms, unless perhaps they're next door.

So, we may have a situation in which normally like-minded people see market farms as either bucolic respites from the hurly-burly or as commercial entities akin to a widget factory, depending on their proximity. A couple of people complained to me that ag supporters were bullying anyone who disagreed with 100 percent of the plan, while others envisioned East Isles becoming Green Acres.

(The chores! The stores! Fresh air! Times Square!)

Council Member Lisa Goodman said she hasn't taken a public stand, but added "we've had concerns. People who have concerns are not crazy people" as they've been portrayed, she said. "When you're creating public policy and suggest broad, sweeping change, government is the art of compromise."

Robin Garwood, policy aide to Council Member Cam Gordon, a proponent of the plan, said most complaints are from uninformed residents "spinning a doomsday scenario."

Among the concerns is that market farms will lower property values, prohibit development and draw traffic. Supporters are pushing to sell produce on-site about one day per week, but fear that may be reduced to just 72 hours per year.

Former Council Member Lisa McDonald, who supports most of the plan, recently wrote to the council with concerns. "Most of us moved into [residential] neighborhoods expecting to live next to single family homes and duplexes -- not farms," she wrote. At the least, ordinances should allow for neighborhood approval, she said.

Some also have said that the temporary hoop houses, 12-foot-high, rounded greenhouses, are an eyesore. Similar questions have been raised about a provision to allow larger compost piles than are currently permitted. Despite her promise of tweaks, supporters expect Tuthill to move to limit hoop houses to 4 feet in height, too short to work in standing up.

Worries that gardens on these leased, private lots will deter development have been disproved by studies, Garwood said.

"So the real question is, are we going to have a market garden, or a vacant lot?" asked Garwood.

Anna Cioffi, program coordinator for the Land Stewardship Project, said Minneapolis is "really behind the times" compared with other cities that encourage urban farming. She said there is lots of vacant land, particularly in poorer neighborhoods where market farms could provide jobs and extra income to residents.

"There are already a dozen or more urban farms operating in the city; people just don't know about them," she said.

Tuthill is concerned there hasn't been sufficient public knowledge or input on the plan, and she wants to make sure it doesn't allow someone to grow corn out of a bathtub in their front yard, for example. The committee may delay a decision.

"It may seem nutsy cuckoo," she said. "But this is a built-up city and everybody has property rights." We have to make sure gardens reflect urban reality.

"I grew up on a farm," said Tuthill. "They are out there tilling before the flippin' sun comes up."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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