Proposed changes would expand Austin’s urban farm ordinance


Last year, the city shut down the East Austin urban farm where Dorsey Barger raised, slaughtered and sold chickens. Her neighbors complained about the smell and officials cited her for several code violations — cutting off Barger’s livelihood and spawning a debate about the proper place for farming in the city.

Now a panel has recommended expanding Austin’s current and vague urban farm code with changes that could boost the city’s grow local, eat local movement — and put Barger’s HausBar Farms back in business.

Under the proposed recommendations, urban farms could continue to operate in residential neighborhoods as long as the property is between one and five acres. What’s new, farmers would be allowed to raise and slaughter chickens, rabbits and fish in proportion to the size of their farm. Barger, for example, would be allowed to slaughter 20 chickens a week on her 2-acre farm. Farms could also host events such as weddings, fundraisers and cooking classes, but only with a special permit.

The proposal also spells out a new type of farm called a market garden, which would allow people with less than an acre to raise and sell produce, eggs and other products on a smaller scale (generating no more than three customer trips per day). While the larger farms could get a special permit to have sheep, goats and pigs, the market gardens could not have those animals.

The recommendations come from the Food Sustainability Policy Board, a committee charged with promoting local food and tasked by City Council to study the issue. They will be considered by the Planning Commission on Tuesday, and if the measure passes muster there, if will go on to the City Council in mid-October. Getting them to fly through the council won’t come easy, though.

Two neighborhood groups say they were ignored in the recent process of revisiting the urban farm code. They offered a slate of suggestions, including prohibiting slaughtering of animals in residential areas, barring any new urban farms in neighborhoods and requiring urban farms to be treated as commercial enterprises.

“We gave them eight recommendations and not one was adopted by the committee,” said Daniel Llanes, a leader in the Govalle/Johnston Terrace neighborhood. That community is near Barger’s farm as well as three others — Boggy Creek, Springdale and Rain Lily — that have operated for years.

The neighborhood groups are calling for an independent committee from the University of Texas to work with everyone to come up with a new code. They claim the current process has been “discriminatory” against East Austin residents, who are primarily Hispanic and live in poor neighborhoods.

“We see the discrimination when there are no urban farms in West Austin,” said Susana Almanza, director of PODER (People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources). “Yet, we have people coming to East Austin to buy land, set up an urban farm, kill animals, and it’s OK?”

Stink in the neighborhood

The urban farm controversy began with the chicken flap in November 2012. Louis Polanco, who lives on Govalle Avenue, complained of a bad odor coming from HausBar Farms down the street. Barger, an avid recycler, was composting chicken parts.

Several city agencies issued building code violations and eventually shut down her farm, primarily because she had two dwellings on her 2-acre farm. Barger thought she could use her old home and build a new one, and the city originally gave her the permits to do so. Only when authorities put her operation under a microscope did they realize she wasn’t allowed to have two homes on the site.

That code violation shut down her business. She resolved the matter by disconnecting the utilities to the old house, and the city allowed her to start selling eggs and produce again. Barger can’t resume slaughtering chickens until the council decides whether to allow that under its urban farm ordinance. (Several other urban farms also found themselves out of compliance because they have second dwellings; they will have to reapply for certificates of occupancy once a new ordinance is approved.)

Polanco remains firmly opposed to anyone slaughtering chickens in the neighborhood. “A commercial operation doesn’t belong in a residential neighborhood. And those composting chicken parts stink,” he said.

Llanes and Almanza agree. While they support urban farms raising and selling produce, HausBar was pushing the limit. They say an urban farm that slaughters animals does not belong in single-family residential zoning, even though the current code allows it. They also say urban farms should be treated like a business.

“If we are going to have urban farm businesses next to single-family homes, regulate them like commercial operations and make them provide on-site parking,” Llanes said.

The debate has been costly for Barger. She hired an attorney. She continued to pay her employees. She lost business opportunities, such as renting out the old house on her property.

“We’ve been the test case for what an urban farm should be, and it’s been costly. Money has just flown out the window,” said Barger.

Hearing all voices

Barger praised the six-month information-gathering process of the Food Sustainability Policy Board’s committee, headed by Katherine Nicely.

“The committee took great pains to make sure all voices were heard,” Barger said. “If stakeholders didn’t feel comfortable coming to the group to be heard, the committee went to their neighborhoods.”

Llanes said he didn’t attend the meetings because the odds were “stacked. I didn’t want to walk into a hostile room.” Instead, the committee went to a neighborhood meeting to hear the concerns of residents. “They heard us but didn’t listen,” said Llanes.

Paula McDermott, chairwoman of the Food Sustainability Policy Board, said the process was “collaborative and transparent. It was a robust stakeholder process, and we got input from many different people like neighbors, farmers and city staff.”

But some longtime residents felt their voices have gotten lost as gentrification creeps into the neighborhood.

“There are two types of gentrifiers. The ones who realize they are coming into an area with people of color and a working class — they take a back seat,” said Llanes, who has lived in the area since 1988. “The other gentrifiers come to conquer: They come to tell us this is what the neighborhood should be like and here are the new rules.”

Almanza reminds people of PODER’s credibility in the neighborhood. In the 1990s, the group led a successful effort to get rid of fuel storage tank yards in East Austin. The group has been instrumental in zoning issues, always advocating for zoning for affordable housing. And that’s one of the issues with the new urban farm recommendations: They fear more outsiders will come to East Austin to buy land to set up urban farms.

“We’re losing our land,” said Almanza.

Is fight ending or continuing?

Barger is hopeful about the proposed rules, which, among other things, would allow her to use both houses on her property. She wants to turn the older front house into a temporary rental for visitors who want to stay overnight to observe the workings of her farm. She plans to also harvest rabbits and tilapia. She wants to hold cooking classes to show people what to do with farm-raised products.

But everything is up for discussion now. She crosses her fingers and says nothing.



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