Less than two years ago, the Austin City Council brokered a compromise outlining how urban farms would operate in residential neighborhoods. It aimed to quell a feud, spurred by one urban farm’s practice of slaughtering chickens and composting their parts next door to homes — over the objections of residents.
That controversy raised questions about whether some urban farms had overstepped their welcome in residential neighborhoods. The revised ordinance, which updated a prior one, aimed to bring clarity to zoning rules and peace to feuding parties. But a new dispute regarding Springdale Farm in East Austin is testing that compromise — as well as the new City Council’s resolve to uphold it.
There should be no backpedaling on the revised ordinance, which was hard-fought but fair. There is room, however, for feuding parties – neighborhood residents and Springdale Farm owners – to compromise.
The new dispute centers on Springdale Farm’s efforts to expand its commercial events in its East Austin neighborhood. That effort failed, essentially on a technicality at the city’s Planning Commission. The urban farm sought a conditional-use permit for outdoor entertainment and off-site parking at a nearby school so it could expand for-profit events, such as weddings, fundraisers, cooking classes and the like, on its premises.
Specifically, the farm sought to stage a limitless number of small events annually with 50 or fewer people; another 22 events with 51 to 150 people, along with the use of sound amplifiers; and two events with more than 150 people and off-site parking. The scope of that proposal, which infuriated many residents, again has raised questions about whether farms like Springdale Farm are more an entertainment business than urban farm. It’s also fair to ask if a venue that regularly generates noise, traffic and parking woes is compatible with single-family zoning.
Those are legitimate questions, and ones apparently the new City Council will have to answer as Springdale Farm plans to take its cause to the council, which has ultimate authority over such matters. Again, we urge the council to abide by the compromise ordinance put in place in 2013 by the previous council. That ordinance limits the number of events staged by urban farms to six. Thankfully, it also prohibits the slaughtering of animals for commercial purposes.
As we’ve noted in the past, the underpinning issue in this controversy is one of equity — the rights of East Austin residents to live with dignity in their homes in the same way as other Austin residents do elsewhere in neighborhoods zoned for single families. At their core, urban farms are businesses, even though they are zoned as single-family.
These matters are complicated by the politics of race and income, with mostly lower-income Latino residents battling with mostly higher-income white farmers over control of land use in East Austin. That is where nearly all urban farms are located because of the area’s fertile soil, but it’s also the preferred site for affordable housing residents want built.
To be fair, urban farms have strong community support, some of that in East Austin. We continue to note the value of urban farms in helping to fill Austin’s demand for locally produced food. They are members of Austin’s diverse landscape, providing jobs and educational tours for area schools and a scenic respite to grocery stores.
The current compromise ordinance aimed to balance those competing interests.
It’s worth noting that the Springdale Farm case is more nuanced than the one involving the slaughtering of chickens. Here’s why: Unlike other urban farms that were given single-family zoning under a 2011 ordinance, Springdale Farm on Springdale Road carries a different zoning – commercial – and has had such zoning for more than a decade.
For that reason, Springdale Farm, on 5 acres in East Austin, initially seemed exempt from restrictions governing events of other urban farms. But the commercial zoning governing Springdale Farm has an overlay prohibiting outdoor events. So Springdale Farm comes under the same standard six events as other farms – except that the outgoing council in December lifted that prohibition, essentially usurping the ordinance it put in place.
That cleared the way for Springdale Farm to seek a change of use permit from the city’s Planning Commission. Though three members approved and two opposed, the permit failed. It would have taken five votes to win approval by the nine-member board.
Ideally, the farms and neighborhoods would peacefully coexist. But if that isn’t possible, there must be a set of rules that broker how competing interests will live together in a way that doesn’t diminish the quality of life for residents who bought homes and are raising families in the neighborhood. Those rules also should help urban farms maintain their place in our community. The compromise ordinance does that. The council should give it time to work.