Farmhands help wash just-harvested produce at Homegrown City Farms. Under a new city proposal, urban farms could not sell on-site without obtaining a $1,700 permit.
  • Eric Waters
  • Farmhands help wash just-harvested produce at Homegrown City Farms. Under a new city proposal, urban farms could not sell on-site without obtaining a $1700 permit.

The City of Durham and local food advocates are pushing for reform that will allow for more lenient rules on growing food within city limits. Last night, Durham community members gathered at 801 Gilbert St. for a public information session provided by the Durham City-County Planning Department and community group Durham Food Prosperity Council.

As agriculture spreads throughout developing and revitalized American cities, Durham is among the leaders in urban food movements. Current zoning regulations, however, restrict how food can be grown and distributed within city limits.

Durham’s Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) was established in 2006 as a tool to regulate development, said Michael Stock, city senior planner. Land use, including agriculture, falls under zoning district rules.

“Agriculture is [currently] limited to within the county, outside city limits,” Stock said. “We want to get something on the books for you guys, because right now the ordinance is very restrictive.”

Last night’s public information session followed a public meeting in early September that resulted in the first draft of a UDO text amendment proposed to the Joint City-County Planning Committee.

“What came out of that meeting was that we felt there needed to be a public information meeting, not only to go over the changes, but to provide education on what the UDO is all about,” Stock said.

Crop production and farmers markets are two main focuses in the text amendments. Currently, no one can legally grow food within residential zones in city limits and then sell it on-site without a special-use permit. That permit, Stock says, costs about $1,700 and requires at least a three-month waiting period. Rather than an administrative process, a special use permit is a quasi-judicial process that would require a public hearing for each permit application.

“That’s prohibitive of new farmers,” Collier Reeves told the crowd. She grows food as part of Homegrown City Farms, a quarter-acre lot in East Durham. “We’re talking about a city lot size to a quarter acre. For a new farmer, the cost is too prohibitive,” she said. “I work other jobs, too, in order to farm. These new provisions should make it more feasible for my career track as an urban farmer to focus on growing the food.”

Another resounding concern among the crowd was the distinction that the current UDO and text amendment set for community gardens versus urban farms. Community gardens would not be allowed to sell on-site under any circumstances, while commercial producers could if they obtained the permit. Durham County has a half dozen registered community gardens, and at least as many cropping up.

“Why does the ordinance discourage local distribution?” asked Kate DeMayo of Bountiful Backyards, a cooperative and enterprise that establishes edible landscapes for private clients while also providing community-based farming models, such as Angier Avenue Farm.

“If you’re commercial, you can do that,” replied Stock.

“That model is outdated. Thinking about them as two different things isn’t helpful. There are far more innovative models,” DeMayo said.

In response to her and others’ concerns, Stock said, “everything’s on the table right now. In 2006 [when the UDO was created], a lot of these issues weren’t being raised.”

The issue of farmers markets highlights an important distinction, too. To conduct a market within city limits, regardless of commercial or residential zoning district, a farmers market requires a temporary use permit. This would have to be renewed every year at a cost of about $50. Stock said that all product sold must be food grown within the county, or make predominant use of that food in its product. This potentially bans food trucks and craft vendors from selling at market. The downtown Durham Farmer’s Market is an exception; that space operates under a mixed-use permit.

“Nothing’s scheduled right now [moving forward].” Stock said. “Our goal is to go back to JCCPC with some sort of revised provision based upon what we heard tonight. The initial project is really to get something on the books and get basically the ordinance out of the way of establishing some sort of urban agriculture. But when there will be an actual public hearing, I can’t tell you at this point.”

Rochelle Sparko, founder of Durham Food Prosperity Council, said the conversations with the city “have been going for about six to seven months now and really picked up hugely when the text amendments came out. They have been very responsive.”

The meetings have succeeded thus far in connecting the city and the community.

“We’re not experts in this,” said Keith Luck, assistant director of City-County Strategic Planning, present at the meeting. “You guys are. We need your input to make these changes.”

As more questions arose over the city regulations, permit costs and zoning, Pete Schubert, community board member for the South Durham Farmers Market, spoke up.

“We need to be careful when we talk about growing food as permissible,” Schubert said. “Growing food is a right. That would really set the stage moving forward.”