Urban Farming to Take Root in Vacant Lots

Can we grow food, community, and the local economy all at once? Of course! Using space more creatively for food production is a big piece of the puzzle of changing our food system for the better – and it’s just what the newly approved Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones policy aims to encourage.

On Tuesday, October 11th, Long Beach City Council declared the ordinance and put into effect a tax incentive, to be assessed by LA County, for owners of vacant lots who sign 5-year minimum contracts with operators of urban farms or community gardens. This comes after Vice-Mayor Rex Richardson introduced the item in May of 2016, prompting a study process from the City Manager’s office.

Throughout the campaign, city council heard from a diverse coalition of farmers, garden managers, local restaurateurs, community health advocates, and community members who live in many of the city’s neighborhoods that lack affordable healthy food access. Long Beach Fresh, a local food accelerator program supported by The California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities Initiative, and Kaiser Permanente’s Heal Zone, worked to organize the coalition and provide communication channels to city departments and council offices, so that the ordinance would have the strongest impact possible.

In 2013, California passed Assembly Bill 551, authored by Assembly member Phil Ting. This bill aimed to allow cities and counties to give tax breaks to property owners that allow their vacant properties of less than 3 acres to be used as community gardens or farms with a 5-year commitment. Northern California cities were quick to take advantage of this legislation, as was San Diego. Then, in 2014, Los Angeles and San Diego passed ordinances and are now enacting the policy as well. This past month, the State legislature passed a bill that would extend the program another 10 years, and allow contiguous parcels to be eligible.

The policy not only enacts tax incentives, where the property is re-assessed at an agricultural rate, but also expands the viability of urban agriculture projects by updating the zoning code so that it is permitted by right in multi-family residential zones, commercial, and light industrial zones, while adding a definition of urban agriculture to the city’s zoning documents. Previously, all projects were defined as community gardens, and were only legally permitted in commercial and light industrial zones. Under these new regulations, for example, Long Beach could feasibly have urban farms wrapped into our neighborhoods, where residents can pick up produce at on-site farm stands. Sounds great, right?

So, what’s next? The  City’s Office of Sustainability will be working with Long Beach Development Services to get the program online this fall. Since the fiscal year 2018 starts soon after the program will launch, there is a chance that some projects may be approved in time to take advantage of the tax credit next year, but they’ll have to move fast. Long Beach Fresh recommends landowners to craft and distribute requests for proposals before the program goes online, so that projects can be lined up and ready to apply in mid-November. There are a few restrictions to consider, according to the Office of Sustainability:

  • Lots must be between 0.10 to 3 acres in size, with no habitable structures on site.
  • All on-site structures must be accessory to agricultural use
  • No part of the lot may be listed on the Department of Toxic Substance Control’s EnviroStor Database
  • Must be within Long Beach City limits
  • Must commit entire property to agricultural use for at least five years
  • Contract termination will result in fees to be paid by the owner
  • Must use organic pest control and fertilizers that meet USDA standards

Long Beach Fresh can assist property owners and would-be urban farmers with their proposed projects, and help distribute them to our network, so please contact us!

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