How About a Tax Break With That Urban Garden?

Governor Brown just signed an awesome bit of legislation that'll make it much easier for empty lots to become food-bearing green spaces.

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Photo Courtesy of Phil Ting, Assemblymember This little farm will be one of many green areas within city limits, now that tax breaks are coming their way. 

You cannot grow a decent crop of tomatoes on your fire escape. This I know from experience.

You can, however, create an incredible garden on a vacant lot. This I know from seeing them in Brooklyn and San Francisco: Neighbors sign up for a plot of land and till the soil whenever time allows.

But especially in San Francisco, where property values (and property taxes) have skyrocketed, it can be tough to run a real urban farm. Folks have done it: The best example is Little City Gardens, three-quarters of an acre where two entrepreneurs grow greens and herbs sold to local eateries. Their hopes to create a true, for-profit farming business in the middle of a city have come close to succeeding, but there are so many challenges, including the harsh reality of the cost of rent and the length of their lease. At any time, their landlord could decide to develop the land and, with only one month's notice, they could be out of luck. This has hampered their efforts to expand, since long-term planning was essentially out of the question.

The Urban Agriculture Incentive Zone Act (AB551) allows cities and counties (population 250,000 and up) to zone for urban agriculture (on plots between .1 and 3 acres). Owners of vacant or blighted land who commit to 5 years of food production — by renting to farmers rather than just allowing the land to lie fallow — will get a sizable tax break.

It's so rare in politics to see a measure with nothing but up-sides. This act requires no funding, and according to a statement from assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), who sponsored the bill, "every dollar invested in urban agriculture returns $6 worth of food to the community." A San Francisco community garden called Dearborn has, evidently, contributed to a 78% decrease in crime in its immediate area. (It makes sense: If your vacant lot is turned into a working farm, you're not going to be able to sell crack in it, end of story.) The neighboring property values go up, a larger number of property taxes go up, and boom: a long-term net gain. 

Cities all over California, and especially in the Bay Area, are dotted with such vacant lots, especially as it has become more and more expensive to develop them. Now that landowners stand to save a chunk of change — one estimated that his tax bill would drop 80 percent — it should become much easier for farms such as Little City to put down deeper roots, as it were.

In an area obsessed with artisan-everything and local dining, this is about as local and as crafty as you can get. 

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