Urban Farm Proposal Gets Put On Hold
City Planners Asked To Revise Microgardening Amendment
Posted: December 14, 2012
HARRISONBURG — The Collicello Street microgardeners may be waiting longer than they’d hoped for the green light to sell their produce, but they’ll be planting in the meantime.
It’s perfectly legal for the James Madison University seniors — as it is for anyone in Harrisonburg — to use their own yard to grow fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs.
That’s true even if residents take it to the extreme like Sam Frere, 21, and Dan Warren, 22, with plants occupying every usable inch of their yard, recycled tin cans full of seedlings hanging off their fence and rows of tiny plants growing in the basement, waiting for their turn outside.
The guys moved into their home on Collicello Street last year and started planting with the hopes of starting a year-round community supported agriculture program.
The problem arose when they attempted to sell the fruits of their labor. While trying to buy a business license, they realized that horticultural uses are not permitted in Harrisonburg’s home occupation permit language. City code clearly states that all uses related to a home business must be performed entirely inside.
Basically, they can’t legally profit off produce grown in their city yard, which totals less than a tenth of an acre.
With the help of city planning staff, Frere and Warren — and several members of the local community — pushed for an amendment to that home occupation definition at a regular Planning Commission meeting Wednesday.
While the commission and city staff indicated that they want to make it possible for the young gardeners to turn their experiment into a legal business, they said the proposed change might not be the best way to go.
The commission voted to remove the proposal from consideration and asked city staff to develop a new one before the panel’s January meeting.
But city planner Adam Fletcher said that realistically a proposal likely won’t be ready for a public hearing until February.
Although planning staff crafted the proposal and covered its $375 fee, which mostly goes to advertising costs, the staff later decided to recommend against it.
“We tried to do the most simplistic thing,” Fletcher explained to the commission. “[But] we realized it was really going to open up this sort of interpretation nightmare.”
Staff cited various concerns, including the possible complication of Harrisonburg’s tall grass and weeds ordinance and the potential for such a change to conflict with the area’s residential nature.
Staff and commission members repeated the sentiment that while Frere and Warren, with the blessing of their landlord and neighbors, aren’t creating any problems for the city, others who would be included in the amendment might.
But Frere argued that the tall grass and weeds ordinance would keep microfarms from getting visually out of hand.
Several residents who spoke in favor of the amendment said it would actually improve the character of the city. Only one local resident spoke against it.
Valerie Ramsey, who also lives on Collicello Street, said she moved to the area partly because of Frere and Warren’s efforts.
“It made me feel really good about the neighborhood in general,” she said.
Andrew Jenner, another neighbor to Frere and Warren, said their passion for bettering the community is infectious.
“When you see people investing so much care in a property … it’s inspiring,” he said, adding that more home businesses translate to more people staying close to home throughout the day.
“It’s like free community policing,” he said.
City resident Eliza Hoover brought up another benefit of operations such as the one on Collicello Street.
“I think it could make a huge difference in eating habits in people in a low-income area,” she said.
Justin Van Kleeck, assistant manager of the Harrisonburg Farmers Market, said he worried that not approving the amendment would shut down the discussion on the matter, but the commission tried to assuage that concern.
“I’m supportive of this in principle,” Commissioner Henry Way said. “I’m just trying to find a way through this legal framework.”
Contact Candace Sipos at 574-6275 or firstname.lastname@example.org