August 31, 2010

Seattle urban farm

Courtesy Diana Jain

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Nicole Capizzi runs a CSA from her 1/2-acre urban farm in Seattle’s Rainier Beach neighborhood. 

Anyone who’s secretly been keeping more than three chickens in Seattle is no longer breaking the law, thanks to new legislation that updates the city’s land-use codes on urban agriculture. But it’s ixnay for the roosters.

The urban-farming legislation was passed as part of Seattle’s push to make 2010 “the year of urban agriculture.” And according to Seattle.gov, the changes were a key component of the “campaign to promote urban agriculture efforts and increase community access to locally grown food.”

“We’ve been working on legislation relating to promoting local food for the last two years, and one of the things we really wanted to do was give people the option to grow food in Seattle,” says Richard Conlin, president of the Seattle City Council and sponsor of the urban-farming bill. “This creates urban farm land use legislation.”

Specifically, the updated legislation—which was passed by a unanimous vote of the Seattle City Council on Aug. 16, 2010—increases the allotted number of chickens per lot from three to eight. It states that coops need to be placed at least 10 feet away from primary residence structures (existing coops will be grandfathered in) and outlaws keeping roosters.

“I am still hesitant to take away an option that currently exists,” Conlin wrote in an email about roosters to council members. “But I agree that this is a nuisance issue we can avoid without compromising our larger goals.” Like chicken coops, existing Seattle roosters will be grandfathered in.

The Seattle legislation also allows for food to be grown in rooftop greenhouses that can extend 15 feet above height limits in certain zones, and it formally recognizes farmers’ markets as retail sellers.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the updated codes states that urban farms of up to 4,000 square feet are permitted within city limits. And food grown on these urban farms can be sold on site.

“I think Seattle is fantastic for pushing these issues and fighting to make them a priority. I’m very proud of my city,” says Nicole Jain Capizzi, who recently returned to Seattle from Milwaukee to start a 1/2-acre urban farm in the city’s Rainier Beach neighborhood. She raises Honey bees and grows a mix of vegetables and flowers for sale through her community-supported agriculture program and to a handful of local restaurants.

Keeping Honey bees had never been an issue for Capizzi (Seattle already had apiary legislation), but growing food on a residentially zoned lot for the purpose of selling it had. Because urban farming was always widely accepted in Seattle—even though it wasn’t technically legal—Capizzi says the legislation didn’t change what she planned to do on her farm, so much as how comfortable she felt advertising it.

“My marketing was really underground—by word of mouth. I didn’t want to make it very public because it wasn’t legal yet,” she says. “But I’m really happy I can now look for customers a little more widely and share what I’m doing and let others use it as an example and an inspiration.”

With full support from the city council and minimal resistance from constituents (Conlin says he received only about 60 emails in opposition to the legislation), Seattle’s farming culture will surely inspire urban-farming communities around the country.

“We hope it sets a model for other cities,” Conlin says. “That cities will look at ours and say, ‘This makes sense, they’ve taken care of their contingencies and they know what they’re doing.'”

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