Archive for October 1st, 2009

Urban Right-to-Farm Laws

Sharon October 1st, 2009

One of the things I’ve been saying for a long time is that we’re going to need to address zoning questions early in the process of adaptation.   In an increasing number of rural areas, “Right-to-Farm” laws are in effect - that is, there are laws that protect farmers who are engaged in the normal practice of agriculture, when suburbanization or urbanization enters the picture.  The assumption is that if it is part of the normal practice of agriculture, the neighbors can’t complain.

Now obviously, in city centers, standard right to farm laws can’t be applied wholesale.  First of all, most of the farms have been removed - that is, we’re not talking about protecting existing farmers, but enabling new ones so the “sniff before you move” test can’t be applied here.  Second of all, I think we can all reasonably agree that some kinds of agricultural and livestock production are probably not appropriate in urban environments, and that living in cities requires a high degree of accomodation of others. 

That said, however, 5 of the 6 largest US cities permit chickens in backyards.  Many have minimal or no restrictions on urban livestock - there are goats in LA and pigs in Brooklyn, and chickens nearly everywhere, and people manage to get along quite well.  A friend of mine has 5 acres in an affluent suburb of Boston (it wasn’t affluent when she bought them), and has horses, goats, a pig, chickens, turkeys and geese.  I know another person with three cows inside the city limits of Evanston. 

But there are also cities that permit no livestock, not even poultry - as Gene Logsdon has put it, “you can have a barking, crapping dog the size of a pony, but not three quiet hens.”   In other cities, there may be elaborate and excessive laws that benefit neither residents nor the city that has to enforce them - for example, in Beverly, MA, where my mother and step-mother keep 4 hens, they were required to get permission from every single one of their abutters, to have their property inspected, and have a yearly inspection by the town vet.  Any increase in flock size requires more queries, more permissions, more visits.  Meanwhile, the next town over has a “six chickens per household” flat policy - no inspections.  Given the cost in time and effort to her city, as well as the barrier having to approach your neighbors offers, this process really ought to be streamlined.

The same goes for gardening - some cities and suburbs restrict front yard food gardening, or don’t permit the use of sidewalk marginal strips, to which ornamental gardeners have full access, to be planted in food plants.  The reality is that growing food is at least as beautiful as flowers, and we need to change those laws.

We also need to clarify laws about water use and capture, that make home scale agriculture possible in the dryer parts of the US - rainbarrels should be permitted in every state and city in the US.  In many cases, the dryest parts of the US are subject to heavy rains, when they come, and large portions of the rain is lost into flooding on asphalt and overflowing storm sewers - allowing homeowners to capture rainwater is an essential part of the picture of creating sustainable cities.  Moreover, some cities make no distinction between lawn watering and food garden watering - Gary Nabhan, in _Coming Home to Eat_ his book about living the 250 mile diet in one of the dryest areas of the country cites research that confirms that sustainable home food production uses less regional water than trucked in produce - the high water cost of most electrical generation means that growing in your backyard will use less water in total than buying produce that was shipped and held under refrigeration.

What is needed, then is a set of consistent legal parameters that can be applied in cities and suburbs throughout the country - that can be pointed to as a reasonable norm, that protect the neighbors of city dwellers within reason, but that also balance that protection with the right to practice subsistence activities, and the recognition that urban dwellers already accept nuisances of all sorts as part of living with neighbors.  That barking dog next door, the cats that pee on the back fence, the rumble of trucks delivering to the grocery store, the traffic pollution.  If we’re going to complain about the smell of a neighbor’s rabbits, it would have to be an abnormally strong smell - not the earthy smell of reasonably kept rabbit cages, which is less strong than the smell of diesel exhaust to which most urban dwellers are accustomed, but the smell of unhealthy and dangerous conditions.

I’m not a lawyer, and these guidelines would need to be drafted appropriately by one, but I’d love to see some discussion here about the appropriate way to begin establishing an urban right-to-farm movement, and the appropriate parameters for one.  Because in our increasingly poorer world, it cannot be left to an accident of geography - where our jobs or our family are - to decide whether we are to have enough good and safe food to eat.

What do you suggest we include?