San Diego's city council voted last week to implement the measures of Assembly Bill 551, a law passed in 2014 that provides tax incentives to owners of vacant parcels between 0.1 and 3 acres in size who agree to enter long-term leases to use the land for agricultural purposes.
San Diego County is expected to pass a resolution in the coming months that will lay the framework for installation of the "urban agricultural zones" not just in the city, but in unincorporated areas of the county and in any other local city that chooses to participate.
City leaders, including councilmember Scott Sherman, praised the initiative for its potential to provide access to shared community garden plots, which have been popular where they've so far been established.
"City officials have been talking about community gardens,” says San Diego Food System Alliance director Elly Brown, “but I see this as a larger win-win opportunity because urban agriculture can include a whole spectrum of activities from low-production things like a community garden, but it could also range all the way into a commercial operation, which can also be beneficial for communities. There are a lot of urban-farming techniques where you don't need a lot of space — hydroponics, aquaponics, vertical growing. City councilmembers haven't really stressed that because they haven't seen many examples — there aren't many urban farms in San Diego."
Though there have been no firm commitments from the county's other 17 cities, which have to opt in to the plan that drastically reduces property-tax revenues on any parcel converted to farm use, the alliance has spoken with either city officials or activists interested in implementing the program in Chula Vista, El Cajon, Lemon Grove, National City, and Santee.
"If there's enough community demand, I'm sure elected officials will pay attention," Brown continues. "We've met with officials from some other cities in the county, and it seems the question is whether there's really a demand for this, and whether there are enough vacant lots to take advantage of an ordinance."
Under the terms of AB 551, property owners must commit to leasing their vacant land for a period of at least five years to a community-garden organization or another party interested in using it for small-scale agriculture. For the duration of the lease, the land would be assessed as irrigated cropland, valued at $12,500 per acre in 2014.
Interest from community members has been robust in other areas that have experimented with urban farming, with participants largely motivated by the prospect of social improvement, according to a recent New York University study.
"There are a lot of young people interested in farming,” says Brown, “but they don't want to go to Escondido or Valley Center to invest in acres of space, they want to start smaller. There's something about urban farming that attracts people with a social justice mission — it's more visible when you've got agriculture in the city, right?"
Signing up property owners, though, may be a bit more of a challenge. While community activists in Southeast San Diego have identified several sites they're interested in, groups in Linda Vista and other more densely developed neighborhoods have struggled.
"We've got two letters of support so far from landowners — one that's already using their space for a community garden that would like to take advantage of the program and another who has some vacant land they'd be willing to provide for urban agriculture," Brown says. "But it's been challenging finding landowner advocates; our hope is once the money is available it'll help bring more of them to the table.
"We'd like to create a continually updated list of vacant lots to match with landowners who would be interested in converting those lots, and then we'd be able to link that with community garden managers, farmers, people we could match with the properties."
Once a municipality signs on to the provisions of AB 551 owners, prospective farmers and local government will have until December 31, 2018, to enter into a lease contract. After that, the law is scheduled to sunset, though Brown and the alliance are hopeful it can be amended to become permanent once the results of early adoptees are in.
"From my perspective, if we can get as many contracts signed within the city of San Diego and other local cities as possible, we'll be able to prove the benefits of the program, and there are many."
(corrected 3/11, 4:50 a.m.)