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After long debate, Council OKs changes to Urban Farm Ordinance

Friday, November 22, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

After hours of discussion, the City Council approved changes to the Urban Farm Ordinance Thursday night, giving East Austin neighborhoods a victory in the battle to stop or prevent slaughtering of fowl and rabbits in single-family neighborhoods—the most important of their demands.


The final vote was unanimous.


Farmers in single-family neighborhoods were also denied the option of seeking a Conditional Use Permit to allow them to provide wedding venues and other entertainment on a regular basis. They will be able to seek temporary use permits for six events a year under the new rules.


Only Springdale Farm, which is in a commercial zoned area, can get a Conditional Use Permit to do outdoor entertainment but must go through the Planning Commission to get that.


Passage of the ordinance didn’t happen without a fight but Council managed to settle on revisions to the city’s Urban Farm Ordinance following an extended public comment and debate.


East Austin neighbors close to farms have become increasingly concerned about the additional parking problems and crowds that result from commercial activities associated with the farms in single-family zoned areas. The farmers and their supporters have argued that the city needs the farms in order to promote sustainable food options.


In the end, Council voted 7-0 to approve changes to the ordinance, which will become effective in 120 days.


Those changes were broken down into several smaller parts, with separate votes held when the Planning Commission recommendation diverged from staff’s recommendation.


“This has been a long, long process with a lot of robust debate,” said Council Member Mike Martinez. “After this is said and done, the sun is going to come up tomorrow and we are still going to be neighbors. We’re still going to be Austinites. I want us to think about that moving forward. Because what I see happening over and over at City Hall and on this dais is what we see in other places that we don’t want to be. We don’t want to be like Washington DC. We don’t want to be like Dallas. We want to be Austin… At the end of the day, we’re

still a community. We have to stick together with one another.”


Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole said, “We achieved a true balance of protecting neighborhoods and allowing sustainable growth of healthy foods within our city.”

Urban farmers will be allowed to raise fowl, rabbits and fish. Slaughtering fowl and rabbits will be prohibited in single-family zoning, though farmers will be able to slaughter fish. However, farmers will not be permitted to compost any animal remains. That vote passed 6-1, with Martinez voting in opposition.


Council Member Laura Morrison helped update those in attendance about the real possibility of a regional abattoir, which continues to be in the works. Martinez spoke to the need of a centrally-located slaughterhouse.


Council voted 6-1 to allow two dwelling units on a farm, instead of the current limit of one unit. Council Member Chris Riley voted against that particular item.


But Council voted 7-0 to allow 20 percent of the farms’ sales to be products from other farms.


In terms of events held at Urban Farms with single-family zoning, those will continue to be prohibited. Though the Planning Commission recommended that they be allowed with a Conditional Use Permit, but Council voted to keep the rules as is, in a vote of 6-1 with Riley voting no. Educational uses would still be allowed; cooking classes with high fees would not.


Riley advocated for the Conditional Use Permit, saying it would allow for more engagement with the neighborhood


“This doesn’t have anything to do with urban farming. This is simply allowing commercial uses in a single-family zoning,” said Leffingwell.


Temporary Use Permits, which could allow farmers to hold fundraisers, will be allowed. Those permits will be limited to six per year. That was approved in a unanimous vote.


Council also unanimously approved Market Gardens, requiring a dwelling on the site. Market Gardens are farms that are less than 1 acre in size.


Thirteen years ago, the city approved the original Urban Farms Ordinance. In November of this past year a complaint about meat composting at HausBar Farms triggered a code revision process that has grown increasingly heated. In October, Council postponed the changes, asking that the sides meet in a mediation session.


The postponement failed to bring calm to the opposing sides. In the weeks since Council last took up the Urban Farms Ordinance, signs have appeared all over the east side declaring allegiances with both sides of the issue.


Planning and Development Review’s Jerry Rusthoven described the mediation, saying, “There was no positive conclusion at the end of the meeting. There was no agreement.”


Just prior to the Council hearing, the sides were able to agree to a compromise on speaking times, with each side agreeing to speak for 39 minutes.


Though testimony was limited, it ran the gamut. Bands, children, and all manner of people for and against the ordinance spoke to a packed City Hall Chambers well into the night.


“There is no one here who is anti-farm. This is not about urban farms; this is about two property owners. We are here to defend single-family zoning,” said Govalle/ Johnson Terrace Contact Planning Team member Daniel Llanes.


Llanes said that the current ordinance does not provide adequate protections against commercialization in residential areas. Llanes asked why the farms were given preferential treatment, pointing out that Springdale Farm had steadily increased its non-farm activities even as the revision process was taking place.


Susana Almanza, director of PODER, said that she was disgusted with farmers saying that they could barely survive in a community filled with families living in poverty.


“Tell me how does the Sustainable Food Policy Board bring forward an ordinance that does not feed the needy?” asked Almanza, who said they were only looking at business, not helping the community. Almanza went on to point to the $65 prix fixe menu and $3,000 wedding venue fee at Springdale Farm.


Paula Foore, who operates Springdale Farm, spoke in favor of the ordinance. She said that they do sell to high-end restaurants, but that their food covered a lot of ground, including food banks. She also pointed to ways that the farms give back to the community through fundraisers and educational programs.


Natural Gardener John Dromgoole pointed out that the farms pay a living wage, saying, “Unlike commercial agriculture, these folks are doing the right thing… It costs more to do the right thing. These types of ethics are the ones that we want to support.”


Susan Santos spoke on behalf of the Sustainable Food Center, saying that the food system was currently broken, and every effort should be made to return power over food production to the community.


“We support the right of community members to participate in our food system, not just as consumers, but producers as well,” said Santos.


Rosewood resident Jane Rivera pointed to East Austin’s recent industrial past, and the efforts to change it.


“We don’t want to see that again. We don’t want slaughterhouses in our community,” said Rivera. “This is history, please don’t repeat it.”

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