Chickens in the backyard. Tomato plants in the front yard. A produce stand in the driveway.
To some, this is a picture of successful urban agriculture, a sustainable way to grow one’s own food and support the local food movement.
For others, this is a sign of an encroaching nuisance to neighbors, putting lives at risk and ruining the peace of one’s own home.
Tucson city planners charged with creating regulations that cover urban agriculture hope to hash out the two interests in a couple of public meetings. The first one is Tuesday.
Tucson city planners worked with a Sustainable Code Committee of professionals and residents. The panel recommended changes to the city’s development and zoning codes that deal with sustainable practices, including solar installations, rainwater harvesting cisterns and urban agriculture.
In November, voters approved Plan Tucson, the city’s newest General and Sustainability Plan. That document includes urban agriculture policies that encourage local food production.
The proposed changes that address urban agriculture deal with:
- Gardens at several levels — home gardens, community gardens and urban farms.
- Small farm animals raised at residential and community gardens.
- The sale of produce from homes, community sites and farmers markets.
- Greenhouses ranging from plant shelters to structures that are mechanically temperature-controlled.
“The problem with the current code is that it is silent on many of these uses,” says Adam Smith, principal planner in the city’s planning and development services department. There also are conflicts in various codes.
The proposed changes are “consistent with what’s been going on in the city for years with little or no incident,” Smith says. They simplify the process of getting city approvals and provide rules for enforcement.
When neighborhood activists objected to the committee’s proposals on urban agriculture, it formed a task force of committee members and neighborhood representatives. It met four times.
“It was going to be challenging to reach any kind of compromise,” concedes Smith. The task force decided to get more public comments.
Tuesday’s presentation by city staff will introduce urban agriculture concepts, explain how they are practiced in Tucson and detail the work so far on changing zoning regulations.
“The first meeting is really to establish the foundation as to why the city is processing these amendments,” Smith says.
For task force member Colette Altaffer, gardening and farming activities should not inconvenience the neighbors.
“If you choose not to be in that urban agriculture movement, you have the right to the enjoyment of your own property,” says Altaffer, who is a founder of the Neighborhood Infill Coalition, a watchdog group representing 25 neighborhoods.
She argues that revisions shouldn’t just reflect current practice. “Just because you raise 200 chickens on your property, you don’t modify the code to allow you to,” she says, using a hypothetical number.
Among the group’s concerns:
- Activities that attract wildlife.
- Vegetables grown in front yards without an enclosure and small farm animals attract javelina, bobcats, racoons and other wildlife that cause damage to property and threaten humans and pets.
“We’re seeing animals we never saw before and part of (the reason) is access to food,” says Altaffer, who is president of the Catalina Vista Neighborhood Association.
- Animal care.
- The proposals do not require adequate care of small farm animals, Altaffer maintains, particularly at community gardens where no one lives on the property.
- Sales activities.
- Home gardeners and community gardens in or adjacent to neighborhoods who sell their excess agricultural products bring traffic, noise, litter and parking problems.
Unlimited gardening activities might turn into a source of revenue for the grower. “That’s creating a business within a residential area,” says Altaffer.
- Other nuisances.
- These include odors and flies from raising animals, compost piles that could damage common walls and noisy greenhouses.
Food policy expert Merrill Eisenberg admits there are gardeners and urban farmers who prefer that the city not regulate their activities.
“We need to be respectful to the neighbors,” counters Eisenberg, an applied anthropologist who’s retired from the University of Arizona Zuckerman College of Public Health.
At the same time, she feels the current rules greatly restrict the ability of residents to grow, share and buy locally produced foods.
She sees urban agriculture as the way for residents who don’t have easy access to full-service grocery stores — areas called food deserts — to make up for what they lack.
“We want to boost our local food production to make it possible to have fruits and vegetables in the neighborhoods where they live,” says Eisenberg, who has been working on Pima County and Tucson food policy since 2011.
People grow food and raise animals for many reasons, she says, including to reduce carbon emissions created by shipping food long distances.
Plan Tucson notes that urban agriculture:
- Beautifies areas.
- Creates stronger communities.
- Reduces “heat islands” created by urban infrastructure.
- Provides a food source in emergencies when food cannot be brought in.
Eisenberg conducted a study that showed that almost all backyard chickens in Tucson are illegally raised, yet the city has received few complaints.
“Let’s legalize it and bring people out of the shadows,” she says.
“The code has to catch up with our practice.”