Austin should curb urban farms and stealth dorms

From its inception, the proposal to expand urban farms in Austin neighborhoods was botched.

It was bungled when the city put urban farm advocates in control of crafting revisions for the ordinance instead of assigning the task to a group that included equal representation from neighborhood advocates. Since the proposal aims to specify how urban farms, which are commercial enterprises, operate in neighborhoods zoned for single families, that should have been a no-brainer. Having both sides at the decision-making table likely would have produced a proposal that does not degrade single-family zoning — as the expansion certainly does.

That original blunder emboldened urban farm advocates, who saw no reason to concede any ground to their neighbors on matters that affected their quality of life, as witnessed in the breakdown of negotiations this week. That original error by the city allows urban farm advocates, who dominated the working group charged with revising the ordinance, to proclaim that their meetings were open and that they sought input from outsiders, including neighborhood advocates.

That claim, however, is invalidated by a finished product, which the Austin City Council takes up Thursday. The proposed expansion reflects almost exclusively the will of urban farm advocates. It aims to expand urban farms in residential areas and give them new authority to run other businesses on their grounds, such as short-term rentals and event centers. It creates a new, smaller category of urban farms so they can set up across Austin.

All but a few urban farms are located in East Austin in a controversy that pits newer arrivals who are mostly white urban farm owners against longtime residents who are mostly Hispanic.

It’s telling that all recommendations offered by representatives of the Govalle/Johnston Terrace neighborhood and PODER (People Organized for the Defense of Earth and her Resources) were rejected. That includes one that would prohibit the outrageous – the slaughtering of chickens and rabbits and composting of their remains on farms situated next door to homes.

Up to recent events, common sense prevailed in these matters. Urban farms mostly were engaged in commercial activities that fit with neighborhoods zoned for single families. They raised and sold vegetables, other produce, chickens and eggs. A 2011 ordinance granted urban farms preferential treatment to set up in any Austin neighborhood.

In another blunder, city staff interpreted the ordinance to permit urban farms to slaughter chickens for commercial sale and compost their body parts on-site. That created a stink, literally and figuratively. Neighbors had enough and moved to shut down HausBar Farms in East Austin that ran a small-scale slaughterhouse on its premises. But urban farm advocates with the blessing of the politically connected Food Sustainability Policy Board gained the upper hand. They are proposing to write slaughterhouses into the proposed ordinance expanding urban farms.

Urban farms are here to stay and we’re glad they are. They provide a healthy and scenic alternative to traditional grocery stores and help in small part to answer demand for locally produced food. Nixing the expansion wouldn’t change the status quo. The only revision needed at this time is language that would ban slaughtering and composting of animals. That is a matter of dignity. It would not be allowed in any other Austin neighborhood and shouldn’t find accommodation in East Austin.

Another matter the council is scheduled to take up Thursday also pits commercial ventures against single-family zoning protections. On this issue regarding so-called “stealth dorms,” the council seems headed in the right direction with a proposal from Council Members Chris Riley and Mike Martinez, which aims to curb them. They want the city to pass a measure to reduce its occupancy limit from six unrelated people in a home or duplex to four.

Stealth dorms are defined as single-family homes or duplexes that house more people than city rules allow. They are increasingly replacing single-family homes in certain neighborhoods near the University of Texas. By some estimates, as many as 400 stealth dorms have spread to neighborhoods zoned for single families. They have become neighborhood nuisances, bringing loud parties, traffic and parking problems to neighborhoods.

In recent years, single-family zoning has come under attack from short-term rentals and other commercial ventures, which are getting a pass to operate in residential areas. Solutions regarding stealth dorms and urban farms must protect the residential character of Austin neighborhoods — not escalate their decline.

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