Never underestimate the power of the people - in this case, the city's community gardeners and farmers. They've successfully fought an attempt to place restrictions on their ability to grow fresh food in neighborhoods all over Philadephia. City Councilman Brian O'Neill has backed down from his proposal that growers in certain areas (mixed-use commercial) be required to get permission from the Zoning Board of Adjustment to use the land some of them have been growing on for decades. The idea was met with disbelief, then anger, and by this week the opposition had become very organized. The lobbying - and email traffic - was intense.
Last night O'Neill quietly let his fellow council people know that when they convene tomorrow, he'll exempt community gardens and farms from his proposed amendment, which still covers other land uses. That means gardens and farms in mixed-use commercial zones (among them the Village of Arts and Humanities in North Philly, Grumblethorpe on Germantown Avenue, Las Parcelas in Norris Square and many others) are allowed as a matter of right, as the new zoning code that O'Neill wants to amend states.
The new code, formulated over four long years and only put into effect last August, contains provisions to ensure that gardens and urban farms properly dispose of trash, keep a clean compost area and other issues that potentially could upset neighbors. Sally McCabe, of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, an outspoken critic of O'Neill's amendment, actually wrote the language for this in the code.
Growers would have had to go through a hearing process and prove to the ZBA that they have the landowner's permission, which sounds simple enough - but these gardens and farms typically exist on land that was abandoned and blighted for many years. The owners are dead or otherwise long gone and there are no known family members. This is not a question of having a farm or a condo development on the property. It's usually a farm or garden - or blight. Which would you rather have?
In recent years Philadelphia has earned a national reputation as a hub for community gardening and farming. Now everyone knows something else - the folks doing the growing are pretty tough cookies.