Zoning Amendment Threatens Urban Farms in Philly

Grumblethorpe Historic House and Garden is one of the gardens that would be seriously affected by the new zoning changes. The two-acre garden grows fruits and vegetables and employs high school students at a weekly farmstand.

This article was originally published in the January 2013 issue of Weavers Way Co-op's Shuttle newspaper.

On December 13, 2012, less than four months after the widely anticipated implementation of the city’s brand new zoning code, City Council’s Committee on Rules voted to approve an ordinance that undoes important aspects of the code, including the gains made for urban agriculture in Philadelphia. Introduced by Councilman Brian O’Neill, Bill 120917 creates restrictions on a range of uses in commercial mixed uses areas. Among these restrictions, the bill would only allow community gardening and market farming by “special exception” on over one third of the city’s commercially zoned lands, meaning the gardeners would have to.

What does this mean for existing gardens? The affirmative vote by the Rules Committee immediately puts 20 percent of the city’s urban farms and community gardens at risk of fines and sanctions. The amendment is scheduled to come to a vote by the full Council on January 24, 2013. In the meantime, since the bill is regarded as a “pending ordinance,” the city could begin enforcing the provisions of the bill immediately. If council votes in favor of the bill, the changes would become permanent.

While the provision allowing farm or garden parcels with a special exception is an improvement over the initial version of the amendment—which would have prohibited gardening and farming outright—it is still an onerous process that would inhibit urban agriculture in Philadelphia. “The Special Exception process is not an ‘over the counter’ approval and requires quite a bit of administrative effort,” explained Eva Gladstein, Deputy Executive Director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. It also requires hearings, substantial paperwork, legal representation for incorporated entities, and fees of more than $250 per parcel.

The amendment passed out of the Rules Committee on a four to three vote, despite almost unanimous testimony in opposition to the bill from an array of constituencies (including Weavers Way, see sidebar).

The changes would prohibit new businesses such as auto shops, car rental and sales, gas stations, personal care homes, single-room residences, and group living from locating in commercial corridors. Joining urban farms and community gardens in requiring special exemptions would be transit stations and storage facilities. Prohibited outright, and thus requiring zoning variances, are businesses including auto shops, car rental and sales, gas stations and personal care homes.

“Philadelphians in neighborhoods throughout the city place a huge value on gardening and farming as food production, vacant land stewardship, and community building. Under the new zoning code, city policy began to reflect the commitment of the city’s residents. This dismantles progress made,” says Amy Laura Cahn, Skadden Fellow at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia’s Garden Justice Legal Initiative.

What can you do? Contact your district councilmember and the at-large council members.

  1. Let council members know that gardening and farming matter to you.
  2. Encourage council members to keep the zoning code intact and rely on the anticipated one-year review to address concerns.
  3. Ask that they oppose City Council Bill 12917. 

For more information on the zoning changes, visit PILCOP. City Council will be debating the bill on January 24.

JON McGORAN is the communications directors for Weaves Way Co-op and editor of the Shuttle newsletter. To learn more about the Weavers Way Co-op, visit weaversway.coop