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San Diego County will give you a property tax break for growing zucchini

Plus fur-bearing animals, dairy-producing animals, poultry.

Ocean View Growing Grounds - Image by Matthew Suárez
Ocean View Growing Grounds

Urban farms have dotted the county for years, just not in the numbers that can fill every plate. Finding out how many there are, in which cities, and what they are turning out, isn't easy.

"We do not track information on urban farming," says Porfirio Mancillas, operations research analyst with San Diego County's department of agriculture, weights and measures.

With no crop reports for urban farms as there are for those in agricultural zones, there's no knowing how many eggs or pounds of squash are being churned out in cities. There are, apparently, too few to count.

For years, advocates have touted ways to boost their numbers, especially in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Two cities, San Diego in 2017 and Chula Vista in 2018, have tried one method: establishing urban farm incentive zones where landowners who dedicate vacant lots to farming can receive property tax breaks.

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Now the county wants to offer the same perk in the unincorporated areas. Communities such as Spring Valley and Fallbrook could see more fresh food options where grocery stores are sparse. Because food deserts aren't only found in cities.

"What this is really doing today is expanding this into our own backyard. Letting us do in the urban areas of the county, the unincorporated areas, the same thing that is being done by these cities," supervisor Ron Roberts said when the county initially approved the program, a five-year effort that will next involve public meetings.

It began with a state bill in 2013 that authorized counties and cities to establish urban farm incentive zones. The program can benefit cities by turning blighted land into lush, productive greenery.

What can be grown or raised?

"Think of urban agriculture as anything a farmer does," notes the city of Chula Vista's website. "Tending soil, harvesting, raising livestock, or beekeeping." All within a city or urban area.

The state's law mentions "production, cultivation, growing, and harvesting of any agricultural" products, including "fur-bearing animals, dairy-producing animals, and poultry." But it doesn't change local zoning laws or general plans.

Tracy Reed, a business development officer with the San Diego's economic development department, believes the incentive program is silent on the topic of animals. "Therefore, we would default to the city’s municipal code to determine what animals are permitted by the property's underlying zoning."

Chula Vista allows a cow on certain properties; San Diego does not. Both cities prohibit marijuana in the incentive zones, since it doesn't mesh with the goal: healthy food.

To be eligible for the county's program, the parcel must be within an urbanized census area; 0.1 to three acres in size (between 4,356 and 130,680 square feet); vacant, or having only non-residential structures; and used entirely for farming for at least five years. In turn, the owner pays property taxes based on the assessed agricultural value of the lot, which can mean big savings.

For the county, the tax buck stops there. An analysis found that about 3,500 parcels (3,000 acres) may be eligible. If they all participated, the property tax revenue loss to the county could be as high as $580,000. So far, there's not much to worry about.

In 2017, statewide, only four lots had signed on.

San Diego has yet to see any vacant lots converted to farming under the city's incentive program. The zone spans the entire city boundaries, where over 2,000 separate properties were identified as possibly eligible.

There is one application in the works, Reed says. "We are waiting for a water meter to be installed on the property prior to entering into a UAIZ contract."

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Ocean View Growing Grounds - Image by Matthew Suárez
Ocean View Growing Grounds

Urban farms have dotted the county for years, just not in the numbers that can fill every plate. Finding out how many there are, in which cities, and what they are turning out, isn't easy.

"We do not track information on urban farming," says Porfirio Mancillas, operations research analyst with San Diego County's department of agriculture, weights and measures.

With no crop reports for urban farms as there are for those in agricultural zones, there's no knowing how many eggs or pounds of squash are being churned out in cities. There are, apparently, too few to count.

For years, advocates have touted ways to boost their numbers, especially in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Two cities, San Diego in 2017 and Chula Vista in 2018, have tried one method: establishing urban farm incentive zones where landowners who dedicate vacant lots to farming can receive property tax breaks.

Sponsored
Sponsored

Now the county wants to offer the same perk in the unincorporated areas. Communities such as Spring Valley and Fallbrook could see more fresh food options where grocery stores are sparse. Because food deserts aren't only found in cities.

"What this is really doing today is expanding this into our own backyard. Letting us do in the urban areas of the county, the unincorporated areas, the same thing that is being done by these cities," supervisor Ron Roberts said when the county initially approved the program, a five-year effort that will next involve public meetings.

It began with a state bill in 2013 that authorized counties and cities to establish urban farm incentive zones. The program can benefit cities by turning blighted land into lush, productive greenery.

What can be grown or raised?

"Think of urban agriculture as anything a farmer does," notes the city of Chula Vista's website. "Tending soil, harvesting, raising livestock, or beekeeping." All within a city or urban area.

The state's law mentions "production, cultivation, growing, and harvesting of any agricultural" products, including "fur-bearing animals, dairy-producing animals, and poultry." But it doesn't change local zoning laws or general plans.

Tracy Reed, a business development officer with the San Diego's economic development department, believes the incentive program is silent on the topic of animals. "Therefore, we would default to the city’s municipal code to determine what animals are permitted by the property's underlying zoning."

Chula Vista allows a cow on certain properties; San Diego does not. Both cities prohibit marijuana in the incentive zones, since it doesn't mesh with the goal: healthy food.

To be eligible for the county's program, the parcel must be within an urbanized census area; 0.1 to three acres in size (between 4,356 and 130,680 square feet); vacant, or having only non-residential structures; and used entirely for farming for at least five years. In turn, the owner pays property taxes based on the assessed agricultural value of the lot, which can mean big savings.

For the county, the tax buck stops there. An analysis found that about 3,500 parcels (3,000 acres) may be eligible. If they all participated, the property tax revenue loss to the county could be as high as $580,000. So far, there's not much to worry about.

In 2017, statewide, only four lots had signed on.

San Diego has yet to see any vacant lots converted to farming under the city's incentive program. The zone spans the entire city boundaries, where over 2,000 separate properties were identified as possibly eligible.

There is one application in the works, Reed says. "We are waiting for a water meter to be installed on the property prior to entering into a UAIZ contract."

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March 7, 2020
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