Cedar Rapids looks to expand where urban farmers can operate

Proposal could be refined to include farming on quality land

Rick Smith
Published: January 23 2014 | 8:00 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 2:32 am in

Urban farming advocates are tilling good will at Cedar Rapids City Hall.

The City Council’s Development Committee on Wednesday expressed support for a proposal from the city’s Community Development Department to permit farming on available land in every zoning district in the city.

In fact, committee chairwoman Monica Vernon called for the city staff to refine the proposal to make it clear that urban farming would not be limited to vacant land or undeveloped land, but could take place on quality land as well.

By using the language of "vacant lots" and "undeveloped" land, the proposal as currently drafted leaves the impression that the city would allow farming only on "bottom of the barrel" land, Vernon said.

"To some degree that’s where we’ve been doing it, but some of this might be on prime land," she said.

Seth Gunnerson, a planner with the city, reminded the council committee that the council created the definition of "urban agriculture" back in 2011 at the request of the non-profit Matthew 25 organization, which is creating the Ellis Urban Village in the Time Check Neighborhood in northwest Cedar Rapids that features an urban farm with housing around it.

However, Gunnerson said the council limited urban agricultural to residential zones back then, but the new proposal will allow it anywhere in the city, including in commercial and industrial areas.

Gunnerson said urban farming is not highly mechanized, row-crop farming like in the country, but he said the proposed ordinance amendment would permit the use of small home garden tractors and not limit the farm equipment, as now, to walk-behind machinery.

He said he also is studying other communities to see their rules for the keeping of bees and livestock.

The push to promote and expand urban farming inside the city is in line with city’s interest in the development of a local food system, which is a key ingredient of the city’s healthy-living Blue Zones Project, he said.

Vernon said the City Council got behind this kind of community proposal back in 2010 when it passed an ordinance to permit urban chickens in the city.

Sonia Kendrick, who operates the non-profit Feed Iowa First, is among those pushing the city to expand its urban agricultural ordinance, and she attended Wednesday’s council committee meeting with a handful of others.

Kendrick said her program’s efforts in 2013 resulted in the raising and harvesting of 22,000 pounds of vegetables in an assortment places in the city with the help of volunteers, including at Rockwell Collins. The changes in the city ordinance would make it clear that urban agricultural is permitted on any land in the city and not just in residential areas.

Kendrick said her goal is to have 500 acres inside the city under cultivation in 2014 with much of the work done by volunteers and all the food going to local food pantries and poverty agencies.

She estimated that the city has 900 acres of available land on church property in the city alone that could be used to raise vegetables.

Growing food on 500 acres in the city could provide a daily supply of vegetables for what she said was 25,000 or so hungry people among the 215,000 people in Linn County.

"We have to rethink our spaces, and in doing that we can actually solve the problem of hunger," Kendrick said.

Council member Vernon imagined a day when city housing developments would spring up around an urban agricultural center much like they have done around golf courses.

Homes would sell next to strawberry patches rather than fairways and putting greens, she said.

"How can we make the spirit of this … a noble thing?" she said of using land to help grow a local food supply.

Gunnerson said the city’s planning staff would submit a refined proposal to the committee and the City Council in the weeks ahead along with other proposed changes to the city’s zoning ordinance.

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