Planners OK Changes; City Council To Hold March Public Hearing
Posted: February 15, 2013
HARRISONBURG — If nothing goes awry in the plans of two local college students, microfarmers in the city could legally profit from their produce in March.
The months-long effort of James Madison University seniors Sam Frere and Dan Warren led to planning commissioners unanimously deciding Thursday in favor of profitable urban farming — a movement that’s cropped up in cities across the nation.
But that might be the end of the road for now, one official warned.
The Harrisonburg Planning Commission recommended that City Council approve a change to the city’s zoning code that would allow urban gardeners in residential and central business districts to profit from fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers grown on their property.
Council will hold a public hearing and possibly vote on the change March 12.
About 20 local residents who came to support the measure welcomed the commission’s support with a round of applause.
The change would permit Harrisonburg homeowners and renters to acquire a free home-occupation permit for a so-called business garden. Harrisonburg Commissioner of the Revenue June Hosaflook said they would not need a business license to sell items from their gardens.
While city residents are free to use every inch of their yards for planting, they cannot now legally profit from the fruits of their labor, a fact Frere and Warren discovered when they tried to do just that last year.
While at least one city resident has reported neighbors selling homegrown produce illegally, the students’ gardening business, named Collicello Gardens, came to a halt when they tried to abide by the law.
Their goal quickly evolved into changing code for all city residents.
But while only one resident came out to speak against the measure Wednesday, Commission Chairwoman Debra Fitzgerald warned that she’s heard from a host of others unhappy with the proposed change who will likely surface during the council’s public hearing.
People have expressed concerns about an increase in rodents, hawks and traffic, and a deterioration of Harrisonburg’s general aesthetic appeal, she noted.
“There are folks out there who are really not in favor of this at all,” Fitzgerald said. “As this moves forward, you’re going to hear more from those folks.”
Diane Gray said she lives on Collicello Street near another garden that she says profits outside compliance. Gray claims the operation has attracted mice, snakes and hawks, as well as an influx of traffic.
“I have some real concerns about how it’s really going to be regulated,” she said.
Indeed, most of the discussions surrounding the measure have involved hammering out details that would be community-regulated in the end, the planning staff and commission have emphasized. In other words, neighbors would have to report infractions for anyone to get into trouble, which is true for much of zoning law.
For example, the proposed change to code states that business gardens could take up half a total lot size, with the house not counting in that half. Effectively, that means almost all the yard space on many city lots could be used for a business garden.
Also, the garden would have to be planted 5 feet from the property line, unless a fence at least 3 feet in height exists around the property. Just as with any other home business, urban farmers would have to reside on the property where they conduct the business, refrain from advertising on-site and make all transactions off-site.
But all those details are community-regulated, as are city residents’ personal gardens, aside from an occasional visit from a zoning inspector looking for violations such as too-tall weeds.
“For now, I’m in support of this, but I think the points that have been raised are good ones,” said Commissioner and Councilman Richard Baugh, who will readdress the issue next month as a member of council. “I continue to be persuaded by the fact that, under the existing rules, people can do this anyway. Your neighbors can already plant all the vegetables they want.”
Contact Candace Sipos at 574-6275 or firstname.lastname@example.org