Beauty Over Blight: California's New Urban Agriculture Law Supports Small Farms in the City

Hayes Valley Farm, San Francisco | Photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/cjmartin/">cjmartin</a>/Flickr/<a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">Creative Commons License</a>
Hayes Valley Farm, San Francisco | Photo by cjmartin/Flickr/Creative Commons License

How many times have you walked past a vacant lot littered with trash and graffiti, or an abandoned community garden overgrown with weeds, and wondered what can be done with these neighborhood eyesores? Thanks to passage of a new law on September 28 — Assembly Bill 551, otherwise known as the Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones Act — landowners will soon have incentive to turn their stagnant plots into productive community gardens and small-scale farms.

AB 551, introduced by Assemblyman Philip Y. Ting (D-San Francisco), aims to cultivate urban agriculture by allowing municipalities to lower the property taxes on land of less than three acres, provided the owner dedicates the space to growing food for at least five years.

It was modeled after the Land Conservation (Williamson) Act of 1965, a landmark state law credited with preserving millions of acres of open space and agricultural land that otherwise would've been lost to development.

The bill was conceived by Stanford Law School students Nicholas Reed and Juan Carlos Cancino, San Francisco natives who were actively involved in the local food scene through a nonprofit they founded, The Greenhouse Project. Their vision was one of a vibrant, self-sufficient urban farming community, enabled and supported by local government. In their research, they found that property tax was a major stumbling block to urban agriculture; thus began the partnership with the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), which eventually led to a meeting with Assemblyman Ting, a former San Francisco assessor and an ardent supporter of the local food movement.

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"We started to see a movement in cities all over California that have really decided they want to be growing their food," said Ting. "They want to have access to agricultural space."

The legislation authorizes cities to create "urban agriculture incentive zones" that will not only support the development of urban farming (and supply fresh, local produce to areas deemed as food deserts), but also provide land security for urban farming projects (which usually rely on public land or community philanthropy). Private landowners have often been reluctant to allow farming on their properties as potential increases in tax assessment make the efforts — no matter how altruistic — financially infeasible. With AB 551, landowners will be able to enter into contracts with the city that base their parcel's property tax assessment on the agricultural value of the land, rather than the full market value.

Participation by cities and counties is voluntary and the law only applies to urban areas of 250,000 people or more. AB 551 takes effect in January 2014. So far, elected officials in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento have all expressed interest in creating urban agriculture incentive zones for their respective cities.

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