PANEL 7 Land: Strategy, Community Control, Zoning and Policy.
Kevin Essington, Massachusetts State Director, The Trust for Public Land (moderator)
Bette Toney, Tommy’s Rock Neighborhood Organization
Jessica Burgess, Legal Counsel, MDAR
John “Tad” Read, Senior Planner/Project Manager, Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA); Rezoning for Urban Agriculture Initiative
Edith Murname, Food Initiatives, City of Boston
(AUD = Audience question or comment)
EM (Edith Murname): The goals of this session the Food Initiatives program are creating a vibrant food system, creating jobs, establishing access to healthy foods, and environmentally sustainable foods. I grew up on a commercial apple orchard. I had a baking company, I started a farmers’ market, a CFS (for fish) in Boston in 2009, a UN-sponsored herb garden, and I’m on the Board of the Boston Market Association. I’ve developed menus and meals for seniors and children. I’ve had a wide history of engagement around food, fostering vibrant food systems and economies that create jobs and access to food that is environmentally sustainable.
JB (Jessica Burgess): I’m legal counsel for the Massachusetts DAR. I deal with environmental land-use issues. If it comes up in the legal world, I’ve seen it. I assist with the APR program, animal health, fertilizers, pesticides, and regulations. I also help with educational and informational assistance to people on the Federal, state and local level. I promote and develop an agricultural industry in Massachusetts and figure out how to accomplish what farmers want within Massachusetts statutes. The goal is to promote sustainable agriculture in the Commonwealth.
TR (Tad Read): Before the BRA, I worked in sustainable development and transit. Edith asked us to amend the zoning code to remove barriers to urban agriculture. I head the BRA Rezoning project, aka “Article 89”, and have had meetings to remove barriers to urban agriculture and come up with proposed changes. After one year, most of the draft regulations are ready. Now we will vett them in the community via meetings over 2-4 months for comment. Then they go to the BRA Board, then to the zoning commission. “Hiccups” in the process have included soil safety issues and fire safety issues regarding rooftop farms (there is lots of dried stuff up there that could catch fire and burn). The Fire dept wants time to investigate possible dangers.
BT (Bette Toney): I’m from Tommy’s Rock Neighborhood Organization in Roxbury. We started with the question of what to do with leftover land from urban renewal when the “southwest corridor” was stopped. The group thought they had enough housing, but needed some farms, for it was a quality of life issue concerning life, well-being and health. We came up with the idea of an urban farm. We have been plodding along 6-7 years, but have no farms yet.
KE (Kevin Essington): Tad, give a 30,000-foot overview of how the landscape may change under the new zoning.
TR: I’ll provide an overview of zoning changes. Zoning involves 2 areas:
1) the kind of use – this is very important – and,
2) the dimensional requirements – how big, tall, the area that can be built on, and so forth.
The proposed zoning changes are mostly “kind of use” changes. Most agricultural uses are forbidden in Boston. As cities develop, there is an increasing separation of uses. The exception in Boston is “keeping animals and bees.” Because most agricultural uses such as farms, farm markets, aquaponics, hydroponics and so on are not mentioned in the code, these uses require a variance under zoning.
The new zoning language “allows by right” any agricultural use anywhere in the city if it is under 1 acre of land or if it is less than 750 square feet of aquaponics or hydroponics. It also allows accessory agricultural uses (such as storage areas) of they are not more than 25% of the land area of the lot. If a use involves more than 1 acre, it needs a public hearing.
Farmers’ markets will be allowed anywhere that any commercial use is allowed. Also, composting is allowed on any farm. To see the proposed changes, google “BRA urban agriculture zoning” and you will see the draft zoning.
JB: All zoning is local by city and town, and each municipality is different. You have to check with yours. What is allowed and not allowed? Create your own local conversation.
KE: Is anyone here from Somerville who would like to offer their perspective? Please feel free to jump in with any comments.
AUD: What if you lease your land?
TR: You have to get the owners’ permission.
AUD: What kind of resources are available to help private landowners who want to use their land for agriculture but who are being blocked by their town?
JB: Some towns aren’t aware of agricultural laws, meaning that they are may not be intentionally blocking you. Chapter 40A, Section 3 says that farming is a by-right use on any parcel of 5 or more acres. An amendment two years ago lowered that the parcel size to 2 acres. Anything under 2 acres is a problem in that there are not automatic protections. It is best to start with the zoning bylaw and determine where changes are needed. It’s important to have this conversation with your town and determine what is allowed or restricted and where changes might be needed. Also, check to see if you have an agricultural commission in your town. You can check the Massachusetts Association of Agricultural Commissions and the Massachusetts Farm Bureau. Check MDAR’s website as well.
With regard to the proposed farm zoning plans for Boston, are you suggesting limiting farms to 1 acre?
TR: No, it would not limit farms to 1 acre. Rather, it provides a the most expedited review process for farms of less than 1 acre and a more extensive public hearing process for farms over an acre.
AUD: What if there are several parcels of less than an acre that are not contiguous but are owned by one person?
TR: This is a tricky issue. If there were several lots on the same block under one owner, we might have view it as a lot over one acre. We would have to take that up on a case-by-case basis. The general idea is that under 1 acre is allowed by right. There is a review called Comprehensive Farm Review where we look at the design of the farm and try to help the farmer design his farm to eliminate potential conflicts, such as placement of a compost pile.
AUD: I live in Somerville and there is an unused lot, apparently abandoned and piled with tires. Is there some way to approach landowners, perhaps with an incentive, to get that person to allow development of his parcel as a farm?
BT: We don’t have any private land being looked at in my neighborhood for that purpose, but neighborhood associations would be helpful. Talk to the owner of the land and approach him as a neighbor. Go to your neighbor and talk with them, understand their viewpoint, share yours. This is definitely the starting point, rather than going to government.
AUD: How does Article 89, Boston’s urban agriculture overlay district affect publicly owned lands? What kind of agreement the city is setting up for the length of the lease?
TR: Actually, Article 89 is an urban ag code, but is not an overlay district. It tackles every neighborhood district in the city. What is says is that in all the districts covered, farming is allowed by right. It is not an overlay, but rather a permanent change to zoning, but it does not specifically differentiate between publicly and privately owned land. It treats everyone the same, whether they are on public or private land.
AUD: So, for two pilot projects on public land, what’s the length of lease for those projects?
TR: Those are 5-year leases, extendable for another 5 years more, perhaps up to a total of 15 years. Those sites are eventually targeted for public housing, but until the market is there, it will be agriculture.
EM: Currently there is a program at Tufts looking at land in Boston, what is vacant, who owns the land, whether that land would lend itself to some form of agriculture, then looking at what process you would use to engage that entity in some form of disposition. All public agencies that own land have a disposition process. So the idea was to make those processes available to everyone.You didn’t have to work in city or state government, be a lobbyist or be an expert to engage in that process.
JB: When you are looking at public land that is available, you need to educate yourself as to whether there is any specific purpose for the land, any restrictions based upon the agency ownership. Do a little research as to whether the land has to be used for conservation, public housing, etc. It’s a good way to start the conversation as to whether a piece of public land can be used for agricultural purposes.
AUD: There is 800 acres of land (in Lynn??) that is available. Do you have any idea how much of that land is public land?
(Unknown): Most of it.
JB: If its public land, there’s a bidding process. But you might trigger that conversation by bringing that interest to their attention. They might not even know that someone want to farm it.
AUD: I’m from Worcester. My impression is that Worcester is far behind Boston. I have a 500 square-foot chicken coop, and I recently found out when investigating at the zoning department that I’m not allowed to have chickens.
AUD: I can speak to that. My name is Steve Fisher, I’m the Director of the Regional Environmental Council of Central Massachusetts. We’ve been doing urban ag since 1994. There are 60 community and school gardens, 2 urban farms where we train 30 youth every year, low-income neighborhood farm markets, nutrition-based cooking classes, and so forth. We have a pilot program called the Eat Center involving the Mayor’s office, Lutheran church, which involves an overlay district looking at tax-levied property in Worcester that could be used for agriculture. Last year, we got permission to transfer 2 properties to a land trust to use as farms. We have 6 Nepali refugees resettled there and growing for a livelihood and selling at our farmers’ markets. We would love more allies on this issue and we should talk.
AUD: Earlier today, I heard a warning about Boston Water and Sewer. There is concern that they aren’t making informed public decisions regarding urban agriculture. There was a ruling about agricultural runoff that seemed to run counter to the interests of urban ag. Will Boston Water and Sewer override BRA zoning decisions?
TR: There may be a problem with Boston Water and Sewer, which is a separate authority of the city. They don’t report to the Mayor. We are hoping that an ongoing working group will translate these issues and concerns to Boston Water and Sewer. We want to avoid even the appearance of any backroom deals. The BRA does not want to appear to force the new proposed urban agriculture zoning laws on people. If neighborhoods get the sense that the BRA is trying to do this alone, it will be resisted. The new zoning laws need community support from those who favor urban agriculture. We are going to need your help in getting visibility that people want this. I brought a sign-in sheet. Please sign up to get emails about it. People are going to see that it is citizens that want this, not bureaucrats.
AUD: Greg Watson, MDAR – We have literally parsed every single word and defined every single term of the proposed zoning. There has been two years of tedious work in this, but it has been a model for public process.
AUD: That’s true. We were very involved in the public process.
AUD: How did the BRA deal with rooftop farms on new and existing construction in its proposed zoning?
TR: The zoning would be very flexible, allowing up to 10,000 square feet on roofs. There has been a hiccup in rooftop farming. Neighbors tend to be nervous about the appearance of rooftop farms, and the fire department is concerned about dry and neglected farms. Closed greenhouses would be different. They are asking us to pause so that they can look at this in more detail. There would be more restrictions in residential zones as compared to ground-level farms, but the zoning would be highly permissive overall. There is still some design review from the BRA for rooftop farms than other types of urban farms, but it is more permissive than before.
AUD: How do you handle hoop houses and “high tunnels”? Have you considered them?
TR: Greg mentioned that we’ve gone through a fairly tedious review of this. The biggest concern is that this must come under a Comprehensive Farm Review to determine how they would fit in to the neighborhood. Two things: the first is the design review to determine if they would be appropriate.The other issue is the Inspectional Services Department, sort of the building and safety department, which looks at how well it is anchored to the ground, whether it would blow into a neighbor’s yard, and so forth. But it is assumed that hoop houses and high tunnels would be part of what is allowed.
AUD: Betty, what is your experience working with neighbors and the city?
BT: Well, the BRA was a pain in the butt! (laughter). But we brought the BRA to the table. They have done many years of community work and there are no farms yet. It is very important to talk, but are people listening? The system seems to make it so hard to get things done.We feel that the neighborhood group is not being heard, really. The only progress is suggestion of city land being available maybe for 5, 10, or 15 years for lease, after which the land may be taken over by the City for housing. That’s not good. We need a longer guarantee so that our farming efforts don’t get usurped. Sometimes the people with the loudest voices aren’t picked for the committees.
TR: The farms have to prove to the city that farming will really work. If the city sees it is
successful, then the city might extend a 5-year lease and say, “This should be a permanent farm.” There was another situation where people objected to animals and bees in the city. That freaked people out. The city likes pilot projects but wants to see if they will be successful before making a longer-term commitment.
BT: Our neighborhood was part of the Building Sustainable Neighborhoods project, but we were overlooked, and the project occurred elsewhere. We had a sense of not being heard. We like what the city is doing but need a greater guarantee.So I have real issues with the probability thing.
KE: We’ve heard from a lot of people in the audience that we need to all be part of the democratic process. This is a very interesting dynamic and is important for the city and for the state and that it will work elsewhere. Please thank our terrific panel.
Kevin Essington – Moderator
John (Tad) Read
AUD – Audience
Edith – background – grew up on a commercial orchard. Works for the mayor’s office, small business owner, helped bring in the first CSF to Boston, and developed an UN-sponsored Herb Garden.
Jessica – is a legal counselor and former attorney interested in agricultural law. Figuring out how to work with urban farmers and how to help them succeed.
Tad (John) – BRA member concerned with sustainability issues at large. Projects looking to amend the zoning code working with the city of Boston’s working group. One size fits all kind of approach. Hiccups – how to handle the soil safety issue and rooftop farming safety issues.
Betty – we wanted to look at how to use this land freed up by urban renewal and make it usable to the people that were there in that community. We came up with a farm proposal.
Kevin: How do you think the zoning overlay will look?
Tad – zoning does two things – what kind of use you can have on a property, and dimensional guidelines. The main changes coming up have to do with use. Farming has been zoned out over time, with the exceptions of keeping animals and bees (which has been at times beneficial in the re-zoning process and sometimes a hindrance). Anything not mentioned in the zoning code is forbidden. The process to reach through the lack of language takes 6 months and requires a lot of paperwork.
Right now the proposal suggests providing small farms of 1 acre or smaller an expedited
process to farm and use techniques such as aquaponics/hydroponics under their own certain size constraints.
JB – zoning is usually locally regulated.
AUD- a) is that the total plot area limit or the total gross area limit that a farmer can operate on and receive those rights? b) And, if you were to lease the land would the zoning rights still apply? c) Or can one access them on land owned by the city?
(What kinds of resources are available to farmers who want to grow on city lands?)
JB – most times cities and towns are not aware of zoning laws concerning urban farming and commercial ag. Zoning by-laws determine most of the activity allowed in a given area. The under 2-acre operations are what have more questions to answer. Go through town meetings to find out. MASS farm bureau is a resource.
AUD- With regard to the proposed plans – if a farm uses several areas under one acre would they meet the expedited process?
Tad – Yes – Though it would depend on how close those areas were to each other. Someone using several small plots on the same block would not meet those requirements.
AUD – How do you approach land owners who have unused residential lots and what types of incentives can be provided to landowners to allow for the letting someone farm it?
Betty – go through the neighborhood council and just see what general feeling or what agreements can be struck. Approach the question as a neighbor.
AUD – Article 89 – how is that going to be applied to all of Boston with regards to urban agriculture?
Tad – Article 89 is not an overlay plan. It is a surgical approach to the zoning code. It does not differentiate between public or privately owned land.
AUD – How do public lands join the mix in urban farming?
Edith- The goal behind the rezoning initiative is to make these public lands available to
JB – When you inquire if there are any limitations to a particular plot of public land that shows the city that there might be an interest in that area. What follows might be a kind of bidding war on the area to develop a farming operation.
AUD – I live in Worcester – I have ten acres with an empty 500 sq ft chicken coop – what can I do to find out how I can eventually have my own chickens?
AUD – Steve Fisher director of the regional and . . . . – Talk to me. There is a lot going on in urban agriculture in Worcester.
AUD – how can we make sure that there is transparency and be certain that private influence from the Boston Water and Sewer authority is not a player?
Tad – The thing is that it is not just the BRA alone that is wanting to make these changes – there are numerous groups , among them the mayor’s office that are calling for this change. We especially need your help – to show up to these meetings and provide your presence as a community member and reaffirm your commitment to this initiative.
AUD – how did the BRA deal with the question of rooftop farms?
Tad – they would be allowed in most zoning areas under 10,000 sq ft. but fire concerns from the
BFD and residential privacy concerns in residential areas have caused us to pause on this until they can conduct their own research.
AUD- how does the BRA proposal handle hoop houses and the like on rooftops and on the ground?
Tad- They will be allowed. A comprehensive property review of how well the (temporary) structure fits in to the overall farm plan will decide where and when they can be allowed.
AUD – To Bette – how was your experience dealing with the city when starting your garden?
Bette – it is nice to sit down and talk, but the BRA was difficult to deal with, and the time frame allotted by the city to use it for farming is 5 years (then extendable to 10) and it needs to be more. There are still some serious issues. I say don’t give up.
Tad – the zoning policy has had to respect the concerns of the people who have been freaked out by the prospect of dealing with bees and animals.