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Urban farms battle is back at Planning Commission

Thursday, October 30, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

The fight over urban farms reignited at the Planning Commission on Tuesday night, where a battle took place over whether East Austin’s Springdale Farm should get a zoning change that would allow it to continue to hold events.

The owners of Springdale Farm, at 755 Springdale Road, are seeking a change in their conditional overlay, which currently prohibits outdoor entertainment.

Planning Commissioners voted to recommend the change to the conditional overlay, but not the portion of that change that suggested the farm could hold 30 events a year. Commissioner James Nortey, who made the motion, said that number should be agreed upon between the neighborhood and Springdale Farm’s owners.

Commissioners also voted unanimously to deny a change to the Future Land Use Map, or FLUM, which they understood would not impact the zoning case, and to accept the termination of a restrictive covenant that was out of date. Commissioner Brian Roark was absent.

“I think the (problem) is really the number of events, and how it affects the neighborhood,” said Nortey. “By taking it out of this process, we don’t finalize it, and we give them a chance to work that out. I think this is a compromise that at least moves the ball forward.”

Owner Paula Foore explained that she purchased the farm with her husband, Glen, in 1992, through the city’s economic development program. At first they ran a landscaping business on the land, but that evolved into a farm. After the Urban Farms Ordinance passed last year, Foore was surprised to find the restriction on her land that prevented outdoor events.

“We felt the calling to do something greater than simply install St. Augustine sod,” said Foore. “We are not trying to grow an event space. We are trying to preserve a farm which has grown to be an integral part of Austin’s food scene, as well as an educational arm of our nonprofit. We need our green spaces.”

Though plenty of people showed up to support Foore’s request, there are also enough neighbors for a valid petition against the rezoning. Those who oppose the rezoning had specific concerns with the events being held at the farm, which they say are noisy, serve alcohol and dangerously increase parking on neighborhood streets.

Rosa Santis owns about 20 homes in the neighborhood, with four near the farm. She said 30 events per year in a residential neighborhood wouldn’t even be considered if it were happening in West Austin. She worried about the alcohol served at the restaurant and asked that the community be treated with more respect. Santis pointed out that she had preserved 11 acres of her own as a green space for the neighborhood and had planted hundreds of trees there.

“As a business person, I think it has to start with respect,” said Santis. “We are talking about 200 people, 300 people for a wedding. Do you know what that means for that neighborhood? … I am not against the farm. I think that it is wonderful and beautiful, and it should stay as a farm.”

“But we are talking about events that disrupt the lives of the people,” she continued. “That’s one thing that I think should not be compromised. I’m not saying they are bad people. What I’m saying is the way that they are conducting business is not correct.”

Angelica Noyola said that she had counted 72 events on the farm since April. She also pointed out that the on-site food trailer was priced at about $70 per person, that the farm provides food to places like the Driskell and W hotels, and that it does not participate in WIC or SNAP programs. Noyola questioned claims that the farm was providing food and education for lower-income residents stranded in a “food desert.”

According to the Foores, the trailer that operates out of the farm seats about 70 people. Attendance for events held on the farm, such as weddings, are in the 200 to 300 person range.

Daniel Llanes, who is on the neighborhood planning contact team, stressed that the complaints of the neighborhood were “not an urban farms issue.” He emphasized that the farm was in the middle of a residential area and that the current number of events being held there was “way too much.”

“No one had a problem with them before, until they started doing these 200 to 300 people events three or four nights a week for 10 weeks,” said Llanes.

Those who spoke in support of Springdale Farm generally touted the importance of urban farms in the city.

Sam Eder, who lives about a block and a half from the farm, said the farm had changed the neighborhood for the better and had helped him “shift his life pattern” toward healthier and seasonal eating and cooking for himself more. He said he was amazed to have access to food producers, chefs and a whole food community in the city, calling the farm “one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.” He said he hopes for more urban farms in the city.

Eder added that he hadn’t noticed an increase in noise or parking from the farm: “It’s not any different than what we had before.”

If successful in its rezoning, Springdale Farm will have to go through a separate public process to obtain a Conditional Use permit for events.

Michele Lynch with Metcalfe Wolff Stuart and Williams, LLP was representing the Foores. She pointed out that there was still time to hammer out the details of how the farm would operate in the future.

“Tonight is asking about the right to come back to see you to talk about this again,” said Lynch. “I know that doesn’t really excite you, but that’s what you are voting on. I’m not asking for permission to do these uses tonight, I’m asking for permission to come back to you with a Conditional Use permit, where we can talk about all of this stuff again in greater detail.”

Though neighbors against the rezoning asked for a postponement at the beginning of the meeting to allow their neighborhood planning contact team to meet before the case, Commissioners opted to proceed. They did note, however, that the valid petition against the rezoning gave the farm plenty of motivation to come to an agreement with the neighborhood. The farm’s owners will need at least six of the seven City Council members to vote in their favor to win the rezoning.

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