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Berkeley Cultivates New Laws for Backyard Gardeners

Sophie Hahn's backyard garden grows new legislation
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Sophie Hahn's backyard garden grows new legislation
 
Growing and selling pot is easy, but selling your bumper tomato crop isn't

Sophie Hahn famously said it was easier to grow and sell marijuana than vegetables in Berkeley.

Now, at the urging of Hahn, a Berkeley resident with a large garden, the city is moving to make changes to the law that would allow backyard farmers to easily sell their produce.

It’s another example of cities being forced to reckon with the growing urban agriculture and local-food movement. Many cities still have laws on the books from the post-war era that discouraged any type of commercial farming – and other dirty things -- inside the city limits.

Earlier this summer, San Francisco planners began working on changes to the city’s zoning code to make it easier for urban farmers to sell produce. It’s okay to grow vegetables most anywhere in San Francisco, but selling them requires an expensive business permit that creates a high cost for a low-profit venture.

Hahn, a community activist and stay-at-home mother, faced a similar situation in Berkeley last summer. She grows enough vegetables for six families in her backyard. Wanting to recoup some of her investment from her neighbors who share in the harvest, Hahn looked into getting the right paperwork from the city.

She found that obtaining a permit for home businesses, like teaching piano, tutoring and even growing medical marijuana, was easy, without public hearings or great expense. A backyard “community supported agriculture” venture was a different story.

“It’s actually easier in Berkeley to have a pot collective than to have a vegetable collective,” Hahn told The Bay Citizen at the time.

Last night, the Berkeley City Council voted to ask the city’s planning department to explore changing the laws to allow for urban farming. As proposed, “Non-Processed Edible Home Occupations” (that’s market gardens to you) would be written into the city code under the home business section, making it as easy for a backyard farmer as a piano teacher to get a permit.

“We figured that if this was acceptable for a tutor or a music teacher, then it should be acceptable for a little vegetable business,” said Hahn, who got City Councilman Jesse Arreguin to carry the legislation.

Dan Marks, who heads Berkeley’s planning department, said that the changes are not as simple as they may seem.

“It’s a complicated question because we don’t allow retail sales in residential neighborhoods right now,” Marks said. “To allow retail sales at people’s homes raises questions about customers coming in and the like.”

Marks said the planning department will have to weigh what kinds of impacts the changes might have, including whether or not they would lead to larger-scale commercial farming operations in city limits. He also pondered whether such changes should be a top priority for the city.

“It’s hard to oppose the idea of doing this,” sad Marks. “But whether this is a really important thing to do in the scheme of things we could be doing to encourage the reduction of greenhouse gasses, I don’t know.”

You can read the proposed changes here.

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