City Proposes Simple Community Garden Regulations

The City of Knoxville’s office of sustainability presented its plan for a proposed ordinance to make starting a community garden easier last night at the Cansler Family YMCA. Jake Tisinger, the office’s project manager, gave a brief overview of why the regulations are needed, and what exactly they would do.

“There wasn’t a clear answer anyone could provide,” Tisinger said, when people asked the city about how they should go about starting a community garden. And as more and more people have expressed an interest in starting one, Tisinger said it became increasingly clear the city needs some guidelines.

Tisinger acknowledged early on that there were other motivating factors in creating community garden regulations, namely access to healthy, affordable food. And, the plan is part of a three phase project that will eventually allow community gardens to be created on unused public land, as Mayor Madeline Rogero proposed to do in her application for the 2012 Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge.

But first, Tisinger said, the city will start with some basic rules. Personal gardens will continue to be unregulated. Grow as much produce as your heart desires in your backyard! The only gardens getting a new definition are community gardens and “market” gardens. And the new ordinance will only deal with gardens on private land.

The proposed ordinance starts by creating a new zoning classification. This means that the primary purpose of empty lots in neighborhoods does not have to be housing. It can be a garden. The primary difference between a private garden and a community garden, Tisinger later explained, is based on the primary purpose of the lot.

Under the ordinance, a community garden would be one that’s up to 10,000 square feet (or 1/4 of an acre). Any compost would have to be kept in bins that take up no more than 5 percent of the land area. The garden would have to be set back from the street or curb at least five feet. Hens would be allowed, but the owner of the lot would have to get an urban hen permit (and those will not be modified for either community or market gardens). Bee hives will pretty much be left alone, as long as they’re kept at least 25 feet back from the street.  The city will ask owners and managers of community gardens (be that one person or several people) to register the garden (with no registration fee) so that the city can keep track and better enforce codes.

A market garden, as defined in the presentation, is a garden that’s greater than 10,000 square feet. Compost piles and rows would be allowed, but they’d still be restricted to 5 percent of the land area. Market gardens will have to be approved by the Metropolitan Planning Commission before they can be built. If the project is approved, the city will also register the market garden (also for free).

Once both types of gardens start producing, owners and managers can take their produce to sell elsewhere, or they can sell onsite with a permit that costs $100 (and which must be renewed every year). Currently, permits to sell produce onsite are only good for six months, but Tisinger said the office of sustainability is considering extending it to nine months, since the area’s growing season is pretty long.

Perhaps those regulations sounded too simple to some residents who attended the meeting. One Fountain City resident (who booked it after the meeting before this reporter could ask her name—if you’re reading, please email me!) voice her concern that gardens started with the best intentions would be abandoned and left to create a neighborhood eyesore, and suggested a registration fee for community gardens.

Erin Gill, the director of the office of sustainability, said private lots are subject to property taxes and codes enforcement, which was why the proposed ordinance did not include a registration fee.

“I think you brought up an excellent point about enforcement, and the importance of enforcement … I think one of our jobs in the next phase  of this process is to look at that enforcement piece,” Gill added.

Zachary Smith lives in Parkridge and said he came to the meeting to find out the distinction between a personal and community garden. Smith engaged in a very polite discussion with the Fountain City garden registration fee supporter because he opposed registration fees for gardens, since he would like to garden on the lot adjacent to his house without government interference.

“If I’m growing my own food in my backyard or on the adjacent lot, I just want to know what I’m supposed to do,” he said. “I know the people who work in the Parkridge Community Garden and what they do with it. I can see it’s a different use if you have people coming and you’re selling [produce]. But if it’s my private land, and I want to garden it [the city shouldn't regulate it.]”

Mayor Dan Brown also attended the meeting, but said he only caught the last bit of Tisinger’s presentation. He said he couldn’t say much, except, “Community gardens are good with the right parameters.”

After the meeting, Tisinger said within (approximately) three months, his department will decide whether to draft an actual ordinance (to be voted on by the City Council), or hold another public meeting to get more feedback on the proposal.

The presentation isn’t on the city’s website yet, but we’ll update this post if/when it’s available. In the meantime, you can email or call (865) 215-2065 for more information.