Garden spot-- Report touts ways that Detroit can benefit from 'Urban Ag'

By Lynn Monson

Legal News

Call it a growing movement in the city of Detroit.

A recent push to create ordinances supporting urban agriculture -- backyard gardens, community gardens, even small- or moderate-sized farms -- got another boost last month when a Wayne State University Law School professor and two of his students submitted a report detailing many ways the city would benefit.

The report also confirms, however, what city staffers already working on the issue know -- there are many significant obstacles that Detroit must overcome if it hopes to realize proclamations that it could become a national or even world leader in urban agriculture.

The 62-page report, presented by Prof. John Mogk, a nationally recognized expert in urban planning, supports and bolsters an effort over the last several years by various city departments and numerous non-governmental organizations.

The premise of the push is that Detroit, with its enormous inventory of vacant lots and land, could implement a massive land reformation that would create food, improve the environment, generate income and tax revenue, and generally improve the quality of life for city residents.

It's estimated that, collectively, about 50 square miles of land are vacant within the boundaries of the city's 140 square miles. To use a more ag-related and staggering description, that is the equivalent of a 30,000-acre farm. The city's vacant land inventory will increase even more as Mayor Dave Bing carries through with his plan to demolish 3,000 vacant properties in 2010 and 10,000 parcels by the end of his first term of office.

Since the city owns the bulk of the abandoned vacant lots and empty parcels, they are off the tax rolls. Changing that by encouraging commercial development -- housing or businesses -- is not feasible given the current poor economy, the decline of neighborhoods and the lack of momentum for development in the city, Mogk said.

"Anything new costs more to construct than its market value when it's built," Mogk notes. "Everything needs a subsidy. There's no momentum in effect -- everything new needs another subsidy."

An alternative idea, through urban agriculture, is to "commit the land to the public good, either individually or collectively," he said.

Mogk's report, co-authored by recent Wayne Law grad Sarah Kwiatkowski and third-year Wayne Law student Mary Jo Weindorf, describes the city's current landscape this way: "The enormity of Detroit's vacant land is overwhelming even to urban experts and there is little or no market demand for new residential, commercial, or industrial developments. The few recent developments have been small, scattered, and required major public subsidies. Urban agriculture, on the other hand, does not rely upon subsidies and serves a local demand for wholesome, inexpensive food, while providing residents with jobs, a method for eliminating neighborhood blight, and a greater feeling of self worth. Importantly also is the city's need to reduce its expense of policing and maintaining blighted lots."

Urban agriculture is a seemingly popular and logical idea with history on its side and few detractors. Who can argue that gardening -- whether the Victory Gardens all across the country during World War II or a neighbor's tomato patch -- is a bad thing? But like a lot of good ideas, the hard work comes in implementation, particularly in the close confines of a large city.

Among other problems on a long list are: Existing soil contamination, often lead residue from old buildings; how to prevent water contamination from chemicals and fertilizer used in gardens; making sure agricultural activities don't add too much load to the city sewer system; increased water consumption; how to regulate small animals, such as chickens, or bee hives; air pollution from farm-related activities; how to sell or lease city property for agriculture use; and how to tax ag land in the city.

Kathryn Lynch Underwood, a planner with the city planning commission, last year was named by the commission as the leader of a new Urban Agriculture Workgroup that will shepherd the urban agriculture ordinance to the City Council. The city-wide effort is joining the expertise of various departments such as legal affairs and planning and development, Michigan State University, and non-governmental organizations involved in garden and ag activities, including Greening of Detroit, the Detroit Agriculture Network, and EarthWorks Farms.

Dating back to at least the administration of Detroit Mayor Coleman Young (1974-1993), the city has talked about urban agriculture, Underwood said. Some developers have proposed large-scale ag-use plans, but they stalled because, among other reasons, city ordinances didn't address urban agriculture.

That revision of the city master plan and ordinances is now under way. While that is a major, time-consuming task, a bigger obstacle, because it is out of the control of city officials, is the Michigan Right to Farm Act, said Mogk and Underwood.

Enacted in 1981, the Farm Act was designed to protect farming from the encroachment of urban sprawl into rural areas. The Legislature gave farm operations precedence over local ordinances so that agriculture is exempt from most nuisance claims that are common when agriculture and urban areas collide.

Mogk says the city will need to ask the Michigan Legislature to amend the act so that Detroit can regulate gardening and small farms within its boundaries. One possibility would be to add a clause that says the Farm Act exempts any city over 650,000 population, Mogk said, thus clearing Detroit to govern gardening and small farms on its own while not giving the city any explicit "special legislation."

"I don't see why the Legislature would have much of an objection if the amendment is to apply only to the city of Detroit," Mogk said.

Underwood said the City Council is expected to discuss its strategy for dealing with the Farm Act in early Septemember. In the meantime, the Workgroup is trying to cover the complicated bases for a new ordinance.

"We have defined as many different uses of urban agriculture as we could think of (such as) what's a garden vs. what's a farm," Underwood said. "The next thing is looking at existing zoning and trying to determine which uses would be allowed in which zones."

"We've been approaching it very deliberately ... watching out for unintended consequences," she said.

Mogk's report cites ordinances used in other American cities as templates for how Detroit might approach its ordinances for urban agriculture. Madison, Wisc., re-did its comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance; Cleveland, Ohio, and Bloomington, Ind., revamped their ordinances to create ag-friendly zoning rules.

The city has had proposals for urban agriculture uses from 10 to 100-plus acres and shouldn't be afraid of small- to moderate-sized farming operations, Mogk said. "Assembling the land lot by lot is expensive and time-consuming, so if you find uses for 40, 50, 60 acres beneficially, then why not?"

Underwood expects the work over the last year or so to yield a "pilot policy that we will have to tweak as we go along and also learn from what other municipalities are doing."

She anticipates that the ordinance language can be put in place in coming months, then the city wants to generate public comment from city neighborhoods and those interested in urban agriculture well before presenting the proposal to City Council, hopefully by next summer.

Mogk is optimistic city officials will be able to move forward with the proposals, but he acknowledges that Bing is being forced to focus on core budget issues of "downsizing and rightsizing" city government. Whether the city needs are demolishing abandoned buildings or creating an urban agriculture ordinance, Mogk muses that Bing needs a "magic wand" he could wave to hasten the progress on a laundry list of problems -- consolidating neighborhoods, ensuring the city has the appropriate administrative capacity, dealing with lack of financing, handling the politics inherent in making any sort of progress in a large city, and finding the proper legal tools to make it all happen. Each of those areas is difficult enough on its own, but they all need to be dealt with in an ongoing fashion.

Underwood also emphasizes the complexity of the city initiatives.

"As much as the city wants to deal with its vacant land, we have to plan for the future," she says.

A March 18, 2010 report from the Detroit City Planning Commission to the Detroit City Council put it this way: "While we have certainly learned and borrowed from existing models elsewhere, Detroit is unique and our strategy and code must be crafted to meet our particular needs."


To view the entire "Promoting Urban Agriculture as an Alternative Land Use for Vacant Properties in the City of Detroit: Benefits, Problems and Proposals for a Regulatory Framework for Successful Land Use Integration" report, go online

Published: Mon, Sep 27, 2010