Soil Generation’s First Campaign Against Bill 120917

The coalition announced its first victory in early 2013 after successfully working with City Council and Councilman Bill O’Neil to amend a bill that would have placed 20% of existing gardens and farms at risk. After advocacy and mobilizing efforts, Councilman O’Neill amended his bill to allow community gardens and market or community supported farms as a matter of right, just as they would have been otherwise permitted under the new zoning code.

This was an incredible victory for community gardens and farms as well as the Philadelphia community as a whole. Following this successful campaign, the coalition decided to formalize and is now dedicated to making sure enhanced food access and resources for managing blight and community-led initiatives are consistently available and prevalent.

Background on Bill 120917

In November, Councilman Brian O’Neill introduced Council Bill 120917, which sought to alter Philadelphia’s new zoning code by restricting and prohibiting several uses in “commercial mixed use districts” (zoned CMX-2 and 2.5). The bill would have required all market farms and community gardens on CMX-2 to obtain a “special exception.” Bill 120917 would have created new and unnecessary barriers to gardening and farming in Philadelphia, putting at least twenty percent of existent garden and farm parcels at risk of fines and sanctions.

This Bill Would Have Hurt Market Farms and Community Gardens

Bill 120917 would have applied to one third of all commercial land in the City (CMX-2).  It could have negatively affected twenty percent of parcels where Philadelphians are currently gardening. Since this bill was considered a “pending ordinance,” it had already gone into effect, even before the full Council vote, meaning twenty percent of Philadelphia’s market farms and community gardens were being placed at risk.

In Philadelphia, gardens have long been important social and cultural spaces and the cornerstone of vacant land stewardship. If this bill had succeeded, many people from youths to and seniors engaged in projects that are national models would have suddenly found their work in jeopardy.

This Bill Would Have Made Philadelphia Less Sustainable

Philadelphia strives to be the “Greenest City” in the country, and our nationally acclaimed Greenworks goals call for increasing access to healthy food and green space. But Bill 120917 did the opposite, creating obstacles to greener and healthier communities just when the City and countless residents and community-based organizations are working to increase access to fresh, local food and create innovative solutions to our vacant land problem.

As cities across the nation look for ways to support urban agriculture, this bill moved against the tide of progress and threatens Philadelphia’s position as a leader in this area.

Sufficient Safeguards Were Already In Place & Bill 120917 Would Have Undermined Philadelphia’s Newly Reformed Zoning Code

After years of work, Philadelphia’s new zoning code is receiving national acclaim as a model of good government. In fact, the American Planning Association has just announced that Philadelphia’s Integrated Planning and Zoning Process will receive the APA’s 2013 National Planning Excellence Award for a Best Practice.

In order to garden on a vacant parcel, a community group must determine the owner and obtain permission from the owner:

  • If the owner is a city agency, to obtain a license or lease, or to acquire title, the garden group must meet a set of criteria being developed by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority and the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability. This will include demonstrating community stakeholder support.
  • For a lease of longer than one year, the group must also obtain a letter of support from the district councilperson and the transaction must be passed by ordinance.
  • Once permission is obtained, a garden group also must obtain a use registration permit from the Department of Licensing and Inspections. This requires at least a $125 per parcel one-time fee.
  • The new zoning code contains additional safeguards to prevent any negative impacts on neighbors.  Safeguards include (1) requiring fences around community farms that are adjacent to a residential zoning district; (2) refuse and compost bins must be rodent resistant and refuse must be removed once a week; (3) storage areas for tools must be enclosed; and (4) no outdoor work activity that involves power equipment may occur between sunset and sunrise.

Requiring Special Exceptions Would Hinder Gardens and Farms

  • Starting in August of 2012, the new zoning code allowed community gardens and market farms in CMX-2 and 2.5 by right, while building in parameters to prevent negative impacts on neighbors. It created a structure under which gardens and farms could finally be in compliance.
  • To acquire a special exception, an applicant must apply and pay a fee to the Zoning Board of Adjustment and meet additional requirements (described below).
    • Fees:
      • A minimum $100 application fee (increases with footage and structures). If it is a permitted use, then a permit is issued as a matter of right (total charged is $125). But if it is not permitted, then the Department of Licensing & Inspections will refer for a special exception.
      • A special exception requires a $250 appeal fee (an additional $625 to expedite if needed)
    • Additional Process: After filing an appeal, the applicant must
      • Contact Registered Community Organizations within 7 days to obtain a support letter;
      • Post notice on-site for 21 days;
      • Provide a floor plan drawn to scale with a copy of the deed or lease;
      • Provide lease or deed;
      • Provide tax certification
      • Additional fees and requirements apply for incorporated entities.
  • At the hearing, an applicant must demonstrate that the proposed use is consistent with the zoning code and any applicable standards for the use. If there is any testimony at the hearing from the community that the impacts would be more than normally expected from that use, the applicant must provide evidence to overcome such testimony.
  • Community building is an essential component of gardening and farming throughout Philadelphia. And the zoning code builds in parameters to prevent negative impacts on neighbors. The special exception process does not add value; it just foists administrative burden, time, and expense on already overburdened community groups.