Urban farmers collide with Kansas City rules

Monday, November 23, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST
In this photo taken Oct. 30, 2009, Steve Mann of Kansas City harvested oak leaf lettuce from a garden in the Northland in Kansas City. The city of Kansas City is looking at revising its ordinances to accommodate urban farms.

KANSAS CITY — Steve Mann doesn't look like an outlaw as he harvests giant rutabagas and luscious lettuce bunches from a friend's garden in Kansas City.

But technically he is violating Kansas City ordinances as he prepares to sell the produce.

Brooke Salvaggio never dreamed she and her husband, Dan Heryer, were running afoul of city codes when they used a few apprentices in their backyard garden business in south Kansas City.

While trying to capitalize on blossoming awareness about the benefits of turning lawns into fresh fruits and vegetables, they are colliding with city rules designed to protect Kansas City's neighborhoods.

Those are rules that the city will be rethinking. For now, Mann is not allowed to sell produce from a residential property he does not own. And Salvaggio and Heryer are not allowed to use apprentices in their garden business, dubbed BadSeed Farm, because city codes prohibit outside employees at home occupations.

Urban farming is an issue confronting cities all over the country.

In this area, people are hoping the Kansas City Council will take the lead in balancing these competing interests.

"Because of Kansas City's desire to be a green city," City Planner Patty Noll said, "this council has directed us to make (urban agriculture) a priority."

Not so fast, says Dona Boley, a neighborhood and historic preservation advocate. She grew up on a farm outside Paola, Kan., and says agriculture doesn't easily mix with many residential parts of town.

"We want to protect residential neighborhoods," she said.

In June, the Overland Park City Council denied a permit for four backyard hens despite testimonials about fresh eggs. St. Louis is looking at outlawing roosters. Wyandotte County is considering some livestock restrictions after complaints about horses.

Yet across the country, many communities are welcoming urban agriculture for its small-business potential, especially in economically deprived areas riddled with vacant properties.

"Cities are looking at it as much as an economic development issue as a hobby or recreation," said Alfonso Morales, a University of Wisconsin assistant professor of urban and regional planning who has studied local agricultural initiatives.

Among examples Morales cited: Cleveland and Boston allow urban agriculture districts within their city limits. Sacramento, Calif., has relaxed its rules about front-yard vegetable plantings.

Kansas City is not necessarily unfriendly to urban farmers. It has relatively liberal rules governing chickens and some other aspects of producing local food, noted Katherine Kelly, executive director of the Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture, which has helped about 50 area urban farms.

But as the movement gains momentum, Kelly said she thought Kansas City's code could be even more progressive and serve as a model for other cities.

Judging from the 100 people who packed a late October meeting at Salvaggio's and Heryer's BadSeed Farmer's Market, the urban farming movement has a lot of support. City Councilman John Sharp, whose district includes Salvaggio's backyard farm near Bannister and State Line roads, told the crowd that he thought Kansas City could tweak its rules on gardening businesses. He said the city would also look at modifying its restrictions on chickens and livestock, though he admitted that was likely to be more contentious.

"We don't want to generate constant traffic, but if we allow people to grow vegetables for more than their own use, there has to be some way for them to sell them," Sharp said in an interview.

"I think urban farming is an inevitable trend in the U.S. I think we can encourage more urban agriculture without destabilizing neighborhoods. In fact, if it's done right, this will enhance neighborhoods."

In Kansas City, gardeners can have up to 15 chickens and even two goats — if they meet certain distance restrictions from structures.

But as Salvaggio and Heryer found when someone this summer called animal control, three goats can mean trouble. (The urban farmers say three goats are more content than two.)

An August public hearing about the goats prompted the city to review its rules — and provoked passionate views from opponents and supporters.

"My wife and I strongly object to the use of this property for multiple goats," witness Barry Seward testified. "And certainly, we have concerns about chickens and other wildlife or animals in the neighborhood."

Supporters argued the 1-acre garden was a community asset and that the three goats were cleaner and better behaved than most dogs.

"It is a beautiful piece of property," witness Jane Carol said, adding that it was a better use of the land than a lawn.

Salvaggio and Heryer lost their appeal and sent the goats to a rural farm in Kansas. They subsequently learned about the rules prohibiting apprentices and barring customers from picking up their produce on-site. They are complying with those rules but are not sure they can run a successful farm under such constraints next spring.

Urban farmer Steve Mann, active in a Kansas City group Food Not Lawns, said the BadSeed Farm was the "poster child" for why Kansas City's rules needed to be changed.

"This is how you build community," he said.

Yet Boley, the neighborhood advocate, wondered where Kansas City would draw the line if it relaxed its rules for small commercial produce operations in residential areas.

"If you're selling, it's like you have a nursery, or a kennel," she said. "It's like parking a business down in a residential neighborhood. Business rules need to apply."

Boley knows from her childhood on a farm that the issues concerning chickens, rabbits and other livestock are even more difficult.

"Chicken (excrement) is everywhere," she said. "I don't think it's appropriate within residential zones."

Carol Winterowd, a past neighborhood president who lives two blocks from the BadSeed Farm, also wants to ensure that Kansas City doesn't jeopardize neighborhood stability.

"Everyone has their own picture of what a neighborhood should look like," she said. "I just want to be sure the neighborhood quality of life is not compromised."

Morales, the assistant professor, said urban agriculture needn't threaten strong residential character and could increase property values. There are ways to impose distance and setback requirements, landscape screening guidelines and other restrictions to limit animal impact and make sure gardens don't become unsightly, he said.

Sharp said he believed the city could deal with the home-based business issues before the next planting season, though animal issues may take longer.

Salvaggio and Heryer said they may need to find a new location with more acreage to run their business successfully. But they have no intention of disappearing into the country. Heryer said the urban farming debate could educate the public and benefit the community.

"It doesn't have to be a point of division," he said. "It can be a point of unity."

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