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Urban farming bill headed to council

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Charleston residents would be able to raise up to six laying hens anywhere in the city -- no permits, no red tape -- under an urban agriculture bill to be introduced at City Council May 6.

The bill, written by neighborhood planner Geoff Plagemann, also sets out minimal rules for community gardens, beekeeping and commercial farming.

It originated in the Strong Neighborhoods Task Force, where City Council members, city staff and community members have been working on the issue for months.

In effect, the bill adds language to the city's zoning code to cover things people are doing -- building backyard or rooftop chicken coops, digging community gardens and putting up beehives.

For example, the bill says community gardens are allowed, without any special permit, in all zoning districts across the city -- residential, commercial and industrial.

"They've been popping up everywhere already," Plagemann said. "We didn't see any need to limit them."

Community gardens are defined as, "A neighborhood-based development with the primary purpose of providing space for members of the community to grow plants for beautification, education, recreation, community distribution, or personal use."

Urban farms, however, are larger operations where fruits, vegetables or other plants are grown for wholesale or retail sales, and are restricted to commercial and industrial districts -- often only with a conditional use permit from the zoning board.

While much of the bill was modeled after urban agriculture regulation in other cities, Plagemann said some of the specifics were based on discussions with area growers.

"We didn't know how many chickens to allow," he said. "We found out chickens are social, so you need to have at least three. That's how the six [limit] came about."

Hens and henhouses are not allowed in front yards, the bill says, and roosters are a no-no unless you own an acre or more.

"And with beehives, we found if you only have one they tend to die out. So two or three ... we went with [a maximum of] three."

Honeybees can be kept only on residential property, the bill says, and their hives must be kept out of front yards.

In embracing urban agriculture, Charleston is catching up with cities large and small across the country, where folks are turning abandoned properties into sources of healthy food.

At the American Planning Association convention in Chicago earlier this month, urban "ag" was one of the hottest topics during the daily work sessions, Plagemann said.

"Urban ag comes up a lot in other topics, too, like 'Planning for Shrinking Cities,'" he said.

"One session I attended was 'Urban Ag in Community Development and Redevelopment.' They used examples of neighborhoods in Chicago where urban ag groups have kind of taken off. They started as community gardens but grew to become nonprofits.

"Cities that have seen vacant or abandoned properties ... community gardens have been bringing communities together and evolved to offer job training, classes. They teach how to grow ... in areas that were otherwise food deserts, didn't otherwise have fresh foods.

"Nonprofits started offering internships to students, high school and college, for gardening techniques, horticulture, even to the point of learning about sales -- operating the nonprofit.

"It was interesting to take what they were doing and apply it to Charleston," Plagemann said. "There's some definite similarity to what Tom Tolliver's doing on the West Side. He's already involving children.

"You never know how these programs are going to grow," he said.

Reach Jim Balow at balow@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.


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