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Urban farm ordinance heads to Austin City Council

By Ricardo Gandara - American-Statesman Staff

Supporters describe the upsides of fresh produce, outdoor weddings and kids’ summer camps.

But the chicken slaughtering could be a tough sell.

Proposed changes to the city’s urban farm ordinance are slated to come before the Austin City Council on Thursday, where proponents will tout the benefits of fresh, locally grown foods on farms that sometimes double as venues for fundraisers, formal events and educational programs.

Council member Mike Martinez said he supports urban farms, though he still struggles with the one issue that prompted the review of these businesses: Dorsey Barger’s practice of slaughtering chickens and composting the parts on her two-acre HausBar Farms in East Austin.

“The lingering issue for me is the slaughtering portion,” he said. “There has been good conversation over legitimate concerns. The revisions in the code reflect those concerns, but the one major issue for me is the slaughtering. Some people don’t want farms in single-family areas, but I don’t know if this council can support that.”

Martinez said the city must find a way to strike a balance between farmers and residents. He noted Barger’s land, a former drug house, was vacant for seven years. A developer could have built multi-unit housing that would have driven up property values and taxes for residents. Instead, Barger created a farm that produces healthy food.

Barger, who legally grew organic vegetables and slaughtered and composted about 20 chickens a week, was shut down last fall for violation of several building codes. Neighborhood opposition grew, as some residents argued farms are commercial enterprises that have no business in a single-family zoned area.

City Council directed the Food Sustainability Policy Board to meet with all stakeholders and draft a new code, which is the one going before the council on Thursday. Under the proposed recommendations, urban farms could continue to operate in residential neighborhoods as long as the property is between 1 and 5 acres. In addition to slaughtering chickens, they would be allowed to harvest rabbits and fish. With a permit, they could host events.

The proposal also spells out a new type of farm called a market garden, allowing people with less than an acre to raise and sell produce, eggs and other products on a smaller scale.

The Planning Commission approved the recommendations over the objection of commissioner Richard Hatfield, who favored more study. While the policy board reached out to East Austin residents at the beginning, it failed to follow up for more input, he said. Hatfield also raised public health concerns with the slaughtering of animals.

“In particular, a provision to allow animal parts composting to be allowed in areas prone to flooding raises legal liability issues for the city that were not considered in the deliberation of this proposed ordinance change,” he wrote in a letter to the City Council.

Leaders of the Govalle/Johnston Terrace neighborhood and PODER (People Organized for the Defense of Earth and her Resources) have opposed expanding the urban farm code, worrying it will attract more farms to gobble up land that could otherwise be used for affordable housing. Susana Almanza of PODER wants the council to postpone action and suggests that an independent body, such as the University of Texas, meet with all stakeholders to form new recommendations.

“The current recommendations fulfill the desires of farmers without looking into how they will impact neighborhoods citywide,” she said. “The Govalle/Johnston neighborhood, along with the city, passed a neighborhood plan in 2003 that outlined retaining single family land. The recommendations go against it.”

Earlier this week, 62 Austin area chefs and restaurateurs who shop at urban farms sent City Council members a letter supporting the proposed changes in the code. They said urban farmers are good stewards of the land and raise healthy food that is in demand in their restaurants.

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