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Ordinance change could evict pigs, goats from city’s urban farms

Monday, September 23, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

A proposed regulation by city staff could force urban farmers to move their pigs, goats and sheep somewhere outside of the Austin City Limits. The city’s 2011 Urban Farm Ordinance is under review and could see some changes after coming under intense scrutiny from some East Austin neighborhoods.


Exactly what those changes will be is still a matter of some debate. Though a Planning Commission Working Group tasked with refining the language has finalized its recommendations, staff still has concerns with some proposed changes, such as the creation of a category that would allow pigs, goats and sheep to be raised in the city.


The city’s Planning and Development Review staff has rejected the creation of an “Urban Farms with Livestock” category, saying that was more appropriate for an agricultural district than an urban one. The committee did side with staff on this topic, and recommended against the creation of Urban Farms with Livestock as a use, even a conditional one.


An expansion that would allow fish and rabbits to be raised did not prove as controversial.


Staff also felt that a limit of five acres on urban farms should be retained. They also asked that the city limit the number of dwellings at urban farms to two, instead of what the base zoning allowed. Though members of the working group argued that multifamily residences on farms were popular elsewhere in the county, the department’s Jerry Rusthoven joked that it “could devolve into a hippie commune.”


The Codes and Ordinances Committee chose to recommend the working group’s request.


Members of the working group argued for the inclusion of another new category called “Urban Farm with Gathering” that would allow entertainment uses on the site. The Codes and Ordinances Committee ultimately recommended that use be conditional, despite protests that the gathering would allow cooking classes that could help teach nutrition to underserved populations.


Rusthoven said that if children were told how to cook produce on a field trip, that would be considered a school program, which would not require a conditional use permit, “as opposed to chef so-and-so from the Food Channel coming into Austin and, for $100, come spend the evening with him and have some squash,” which would.


Though the working group advocated a reduction in setbacks for small animals and fowl, the committee and staff thought it best not to go against the recommendation of the Health Department, which opposes the changes.


The Codes and Ordinances Committee did support a change to the code that would create a new category of farms known as “Market Garden,” however. Market Gardens would be less than an acre, wouldn’t allow animals to be raised if there wasn’t a dwelling. Rusthoven explained that products from a Market Garden could be “discreetly sold.”


The committee approved the new category, though they suggested that Market Gardens that are created without a residence on the property should be required to obtain a conditional use permit.


Ex-Officio Member Jeff Jack said that he was concerned about the possibility that someone could acquire several lots, turn them into Market Gardens, and then flip them into another use.


“We have seen interesting schemes worked out, to take the existing code and turn it totally inside out. I’m just concerned that creative minds are going to find a way to use this provision and we’ll end up with something we don’t want,” said Jack.


The amendments will be reviewed by the full Planning Commission this Tuesday, and a public hearing at Council has been set for Oct. 17.

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