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Expanded ‘urban agriculture’ policy blossoming in Minneapolis

The proposed policy would let residents keep bees, try aquaponics, keep the compost pit filled, establish an urban farm and build arbors and pergolas.

New rules may allow construction of hoop houses as high as 6 feet, 6 inches on residential lots in Minneapolis.

This summer, Minneapolitans either will be more connected to the earth as gardening options expand or ready to declare war on our neighbors for early-morning noise and the plastic buildings they construct.

It’s all part of the new Urban Agriculture Policy Plan approved by the City council’s Zoning and Planning Committee.

Most of it passed the committee Thursday without much discussion. Under the policy, residents could keep bees, try aquaponics, keep the compost pit filled, establish an urban farm and build arbors and pergolas until they drop from exhaustion.

The idea is to increase access to locally grown food and get people “more connected and more aware of where their food comes from,” said Council Member Gary Schiff.

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That is, if we are not throwing homegrown tomatoes at each other.

The ordinance establishes market gardens, where crops grown in a yard could be offered for sale. Gardeners would have to pay for a city license and adhere to strict rules about the farm stand from which they would sell their food.

Originally the plan was to let the market gardeners sell their produce 25 days a year at the rate of one day per week.  The hours of sale would be limited from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m.

One day a week, though, did not seem practical, given the abundance that can come from just a few tomato plants.

“If the tomatoes are in and your crop is good, you need to sell them,” said Council Member Meg Tuthill, adding that it made more sense to allow gardeners to group their sale days together, when the crops are ready to go, rather than limit sales to one day a week.  But she does not like the idea of 25 sale days a year.

Tuthill had prepared an amendment limiting sales to two days a year, to match the limit on garage sales per year for a resident. She accepted a compromise of 15 sale days.

“I think 15 days is a good start,” said Council Member Lisa Goodman, who also thinks this first year will give the city a good look at the traffic and parking problems that might come with the produce sales. “It’s important in the beginning to have a test period,” she added.

Operating hours at issue

The committee moved on to the operating hours of the market gardens, prompting conflicting views: Sales starting at 7 a.m. on weekends could be a problem. But the Farmers’ Markets open even earlier and perhaps matching that time was important.

For the record, construction and the noise of construction are not allowed to begin until 9 a.m. on weekends in Minneapolis. And the Farmers’ Market is not operating at the house next door, although the downtown Mill City Market is surrounded by condos and apartments.

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“I just think Saturdays are really special to people,” said Tuthill, who asked about the situation of a single-family dwelling with first-floor bedrooms next to a farm stand on a weekend morning.  “I think we have to be respectful of folks,” she added.

The committee asked city staff to research current restrictions on weekend activities  and report back before the Urban Agriculture Ordinance goes to the full council on Friday.

Time out for a brief report on urban chickens: Chickens are allowed, with a permit, in Minneapolis but only as pets. Chickens are not a cash crop. And chickens apparently are coming to grief. 

Council Member Cam Gordon said there is an increase in the number of abandoned, vandalized and liberated chickens in Minneapolis requiring, in some cases, chicken rescue operations.

“We need to do a little more work before we open it up wider [for chickens],” said Gordon, adding that market gardeners will not be allowed to raise chickens commercially. But perhaps council members could figure out a way schools could raise chickens.

Hoop houses a tall issue

Hoop houses, part of the expanded agriculture program, are made from pipe and plastic, and they’re advertised as extending the growing season.

The original proposal allowed hoop houses to be 12 feet tall with a maximal area of 1,000 square feet, or 15-percent of the lot area, whichever is greater. The plan also allows them to stand for no more than 180 days a year.

“People do not want to walk out the back door and see a structure that is 12 feet tall and covered with plastic,” said Tuthill, who suggested capping the height at 6 feet, the same as for fences in Minneapolis. 

Gordon, meanwhile, suggested raising the height to 6 feet 6 inches to allow more head room for taller gardeners.

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Community gardens would be allowed to stay at the 12-foot height, and vacant lots also might also be allowed the larger size.

“We’re allowing changes that will make a neighborhood look different,” said Council Member Barb Johnson, who pointed out that wards with many vacant lots could be home to a lot of hoop houses.

“Maybe it’s better to allow some use of them rather than no use at all,” said Schiff, who likes the idea of bringing more people into areas with vacant land.

In the end, committee members went with the height of 6 feet 6 inches and moved on to raised planter beds. They’re currently allowed, but there now will be restrictions on construction materials.

The city currently allows raised planter beds “constructed of durable material.” The new proposal is more specific, listing “wood, brick, masonry, landscape timbers, synthetic lumber, metal and ceramic materials.”

The committee finished up by agreeing to allow anaerobic digester facilities, which turn organic material into a power source and also produce compost.  

“I’m slightly nervous because it’s so new,” said Gordon “but it does look like we’re tiptoeing into this.”

“Are there issues of smell,” asked Johnson? 

No one seemed sure.

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The full council will resume the urban agriculture debate on Friday.

Two Cities blog, which covers Minneapolis and St. Paul City Halls, is made possible in part by grants from The Saint Paul Foundation and the Carolyn Foundation.