The Hard Work of Little Politics (essay, 2011)

This essay documents the first success of the 1 in 10 Coalition, a local food policy advocacy group in San Diego, as it helped the City streamline its community garden regulations. It simply was something I wrote quickly to capture a slice of local history while it was still fresh in memory. It is mainly of interest to people interested in community gardens or San Diego political history.It originally appeared on Jill Richardson’s blog, La Vida Locavore.

Community Garden Politics, San Diego Style (July 2011)

Last week, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders signed an ordinance dramatically streamlining the city’s community garden regulations. This is an interesting story, with implications for trying to change local laws on urban agriculture elsewhere: even though there was — to paraphrase Patrick O’Brian — as much of a consensus as could be hoped for in this imperfect world, it took two and a half years to get the code changed and for much of the time there was considerable doubt whether anything would ever change. And it wasn’t a minor issue for community gardeners: the regulations had been so onerous as to constitute a de facto ban on new gardens.
It’s not like this everywhere. Some American cities, like New York and Cleveland, have longstanding community garden traditions, sometimes even going back into the nineteenth century. They have government programs that encourage or even run such gardens.
San Diego, however, had, until last week, fallen into another category.As the popularity of local foods has surged over the last several years, many would-be gardeners across the country have discovered that local regulations sometimes throw up serious roadblocks, if not completely thwart, plans for little plots of tranquility and fresh vegetables. It’s rarely been intentional. The interfering rules were often written decades earlier, when community gardens weren’t on the radar. For instance, some cities have zoning codes that in effect say, “Only uses on this list are allowed to be constructed in this district” and then community gardens aren’t on that list.

Of the largest cities in the nation, San Diego — the ninth most populous — was unique in the extent of its problems. In 1997, the City overhauled its Land Development Code, a thick, byzantine manual spelling out what can be built, where and how. This revision to the zoning code created a new, separate category for community gardens.

But as a staff member working on the 1997 code described it in a hearing last year, what happened didn’t go quite according to plan. City staff initially didn’t intend on requiring any permit. But they received some public comment expressing concerns, so in the draft they took to the planning commission, they required what’s called a Neighborhood Use Permit for residential zones and banned the gardens from commercial zones. It wasn’t expected to be the final word. Staff hoped to get feedback from planning commissioners — on this and many other issues. The commissioners, however, apparently weren’t game for such fine-scale revision of the entire code. What was meant to be a rough draft became city law.

The Neighborhood Use Permits are required of a number of different uses, from sidewalk cafes to wireless facilities. The permit has numerous requirements, two of which played significantly in the community garden story. First is that an applicant must notify the local community planning group as well as all residents and property owners within 300 feet of the project.

The second notable requirement is the cost of the permit. The Development Services Department, which handles permits, is expected by city law to pay its own way and not tap into the municipal general fund. This means that everyone requesting a permit pays for the cost of processing it. Except for the simplest permits, applicants are charged between $82 and $144 an hour of staff time spent on their project, starting with an initial deposit (increased in 2009 to $5,000). The kicker is that an applicant doesn’t know until afterward, when sent a final bill from the City, how the permit cost. In theory, it could be less than the initial deposit. Or it could cost substantially more – an uncertainty that most people who just want to garden couldn’t stomach. (City staff incidentally have their own objections to these types of charges and are working to make a number of changes.) The revised Land Development Code went into effect in 2000, but for many years barely anyone even knew about the rules on community gardens.

Enter the Great Recession, the burgeoning food movement and several innovative staff members at a nonprofit devoted to assisting refugees resettle. The clients of the International Rescue Committee (the IRC) were disproportionately from rural backgrounds. In the US, they suffered from high unemployment, boredom and limited access to familiar foods. Many of them were also farmers — and by virtue of never having had enough money to buy things like pesticides — they were organic farmers. With hindsight the idea of creating a community garden as a stepping stone to establishing a full-blown farm seems self-evident.

What happened next became well known once the local media got a hold of it. The IRC worked with the City to get a lease on a 2.3-acre site near Chollas Creek, within walking distance of their office and close to many of their clients. In addition to the lease, they also had to get a permit, on which they spent $46,000. Some of the cost came from the nearness to the environmentally sensitive creek, which led to a higher level of review, but the experience froze plans for most other community gardens in the city. (We later found out that earlier, one other garden tried to get a permit after being cited by Code Compliance. $6,200 was paid to the City, and as far as we could tell, the City got as far as typing up the final paperwork but never filed it.)

The leaders at the IRC’s New Roots Community Farm, namely Amy Lint and Ellee Igoe, tried to convert the attention into momentum to change the zoning code to make it easier to start new community gardens. City Councilmembers like Jim Madaffer were sympathetic. Surprising to the people working on it, the effort fizzled. Part of the reason was that Development Services thought that they could simplify the process without going to the considerable trouble of changing the code, that tweaks to their internal rules would allow them to speed up the review process and make the permit cheaper. But, in truth, it’s hard to explain why the wind was out of the sails by early summer 2009.

At the same time, Lint and Igoe were also leading an effort to create what was originally meant to be a food policy council but instead morphed into a grassroots food advocacy group focused on eliminating regulatory obstacles to locally produced foods. This group, named the 1 in 10 Coalition for its goal to have one in ten people in San Diego get at least some of their food locally, took up the community garden issue. We thought that regulations could be changed quickly since there seemed to be a general consensus that it shouldn’t cost anywhere near so much to start a community garden. We estimated the code could be changed in six months; it took two years.

Our undue optimism had several causes. First, of course, was our naiveté. While a few of us, like myself and Ellee Igoe, had experience with land use, none of us had ever worked on changing a zoning code before, and we didn’t, for instance, we didn’t understand the step-by-step legislative process , and our expectations of elected officials didn’t mesh with their actual powers.

What we really didn’t appreciate then was how we were put in a position of artificial conflict with the local planning groups. Community planning groups, which are common in larger cities, are elected neighborhood committees. The members, who are disproportionately older homeowners and local business leaders, advise city council, particularly on development projects in their area.

The way the Land Development Code is structured, for all practical purposes, it’s impossible to eliminate the ‘per hour’ charge for staff time without also eliminating the requirement to consult the local planning group. Simply separating the two was repeatedly propose