Urban Agriculture Zoning in Chicago: Navigating the Rules

The Chicago City Council is considering a new ordinance that would affect the legal circumstances and permitted practices of urban agriculture in Chicago. AUA prepared this collection of responses to frequently asked questions and concerns in an effort to help make sense of the ordinance and clarify its potential implications for urban ag practice in Chicago. As we learn more and/or changes are made, we will update the information here. Contact our Policy Working Group for more information or share ideas and questions about urban agriculture policy in Chicago.

The working group is headed by the co-authors of the FAQs, Martha Boyd of Angelic Organics Learning Center and Ryan Anderson of the Delta Institute.

Click ‘Read more’ in the bottom right corner to see the full FAQs.

Report Begins Here

Background:

During 2010 the City of Chicago Department of Zoning and Land Use Planning (DZP) developed an ordinance proposing changes to Chicago’s zoning laws, part of the Chicago Municipal Code. These changes will update the code to accommodate urban agriculture and community gardening — since the department receives ever more proposals from people, organizations, and businesses interested in access to land and buildings for these uses. The AUA steering committee approached DZP to offer our input as practitioners with “on the ground” experience to guide our suggestions.

The proposed zoning ordinance was introduced to the Council on December 8, and was referred to the Zoning committee. The ordinance was taken off the Jan 27 committee agenda. (The committee calendar for all Council committees can be accessed via the Chicago City Clerk’s website.)

In the meantime, AUA has requested the new Dept of Housing and Economic Development convene a forum to address a list of remaining questions and concerns ahead of the zoning committee hearing. (See our letter to DHED Commissioner Andy Mooney.)

Since the ordinance was introduced and details made their way through the urban agriculture and community gardening community across the city, many people raised questions and concerns about the proposed zoning changes. AUA prepared the following responses to frequently asked questions and concerns in an effort to help make sense of the ordinance and clarify its potential implications for urban ag practice in Chicago.

These FAQs are not intended as AUA’s formal opinion about or response to the ordinance. We encourage readers to draw their own conclusions, contribute more questions and insights, and offer suggestions about the zoning code and other city policy via the Advocates for Urban Agriculture Google group list serv and at AUA’s winter meeting and potluck — which was postponed by the blizzard and rescheduled to late March.

What is the Process for Amending Chicago Zoning Laws?

A proposed ordinance or amendment is presented first at a meeting of the whole City Council and referred to the appropriate committee for deliberation. The committee addresses it in their meeting/s, the place to provide testimony and try to influence decisions. After making a decision, the committee “reports out” to Council at its next meeting. There is almost never further debate on the floor of the Council. At that point, the decision is registered in Council proceedings.

Why put urban agriculture in the Zoning code at all?

The code change formally recognizes urban agriculture and community gardening as permitted land uses. This is a significant step forward in making urban farming a permanent reality in Chicago.

For example, when Growing Home first began to formulate plans for expanding its operations from outside the city in Marseilles, Illinois to Englewood, no zoning existed that would allow them to operate a farm in Chicago. It took more than two years of working with City officials to find a legal way to bring fresh food options into the community, and it was only accomplished by classifying the farm as a “technical institute.” With the new code, this lengthy process will be eliminated, making it much easier for nonprofit organizations, neighborhood groups and others to establish their own agricultural sites.

The proposed changes to the zoning code establish a legitimate place for urban agriculture in the code as an activity that can happen “by right” (without seeking special permission). To date, all urban agriculture sites and projects have had to approach the city on a case by case basis for use of land, without clear definitions guiding practitioners or city staff and policymakers.

Where will urban agriculture and community gardening be permitted according to the proposed ordinance? (See zoning district definitions below.)

Community gardens would be allowed by right in the following zones:

  • All residential (R), downtown (D), business (B), and commercial (C) districts
  • POS-1, POS-2 (parks and open space)

Commercial gardens or greenhouses would be allowed by right in the following zones:

  • B3
  • C1, C2, C3
  • M2, M3 (manufacturing)
  • All PMDs (planned manufacturing districts) if an indoor operation; only PMD 9 (Northwest), 10 (West Pullman), and 13 (Greater Southwest) with outdoor operation

The Chicago Zoning Ordinance (Title 17) provides the following definitions:

RS, Residential Single-Unit (Detached House) Districts accommodates the development of detached houses on individual lots.

RT, Residential Two-Flat, Townhouse and Multi-Unit Districts accommodates detached houses, two- flats, townhouses and low-density, multi-unit residential buildings at a density and building scale that is compatible with RS districts.

RM, Residential Multi-Unit Districts accommodates detached houses, two-flats, townhouses and multi-unit residential buildings. Although the districts accommodate a wide range of housing types, they are primarily intended to accommodate moderate- to high-density, multi-unit residential buildings in areas where such development already exists or where it is desired in the future.

DC, Downtown Core District promotes high-intensity office and employment growth within the downtown core.

DX, Downtown Mixed-Use District accommodates office, commercial, public, institutional and residential development.

DR, Downtown Residential District accommodates residential development and small-scale commercial uses on lower floors, with residential units above.

DS, Downtown Service District accommodates commercial and service uses that are essential for the livelihood of businesses and residents of the downtown area and surrounding neighborhoods.

B1, Neighborhood Shopping District accommodates a broad range of small-scale retail and service uses.

B2, Neighborhood Mixed-Use District accommodates B1 uses, but with the added objective of providing a greater range of development options for those streets where the market demand for retail and service uses is relatively low.

B3, Community Shopping District accommodates a very broad range of retail and service uses, often in the physical form of shopping centers or larger buildings than found in the B1 and B2 districts.

C1, Neighborhood Commercial District accommodates a very broad range of small-scale, business, service and commercial uses.

C2, Motor Vehicle-Related Commercial District accommodates a very broad range of business, service and commercial uses.

C3, Commercial, Manufacturing and Employment District accommodates retail, service, commercial and manufacturing uses.

M1, Limited Manufacturing/Business Park District accommodates low-impact manufacturing, wholesaling, warehousing and distribution activities that occur within enclosed buildings.

M2, Light Industry District accommodates moderate-impact manufacturing, wholesaling, warehousing and distribution uses, including storage and work-related activities that occur outside of enclosed buildings. The M2 district is generally intended to accommodate more land-intensive industrial activities than the M1 district.

M3, Heavy Industry District accommodates high-impact manufacturing and industrial uses, including extractive and waste-related uses.

POS, Parks and Open Space District is intended to preserve, protect and enhance lands set aside for public open space, public parks and public beaches: Regional or Community Park (POS-1); Neighborhood Park, Mini-Park or Playlot (POS-2); Open Space or Natural Area (POS-3); or Cemetery (POS-4).

PMD, Planned Manufacturing Districts are intended to: foster the city’s industrial base; maintain the city’s diversified economy for the general welfare of its citizens; strengthen existing manufacturing areas that are suitable in size, location and character and which the City Council deems may benefit from designation as a PMD; encourage industrial investment, modernization, and expansion by providing for stable and predictable industrial environments; and help plan and direct programs and initiatives to promote growth and development of the city’s industrial employment base.

What is the distinction between “community” and “commercial” gardens in the zoning code?

Given the broad spectrum of growing sites and projects, the city sought to distinguish between “community” and “commercial” uses of land for growing, and to designate the districts where these activities can take place “by right.” Community gardens are defined as providing space for individuals or community members to grow plants for household use, education, recreation, and “community distribution.” They are often located on land in residential districts. The code would define sites where plants are grown for wholesale or retail sales as commercial gardens or greenhouses (see more below under SALES.)

The code does not place a size limit on commercial growing sites. Why does the ordinance limit the size of community gardens to 18,750 square feet?

The city based the proposed size limit on the amount of a residential block the largest community garden could occupy “by right” (about 6 contiguous standard parcels). They decided that residential blocks should not contain a larger proportion of gardens to houses without seeking approval. In the future, if a group wants to develop a larger community garden than 18,750 SF outside of a park or open space district (where there is no size limit), they would need to demonstrate support from community members and alderman. The few existing community gardens larger than the limit will likely be grandfathered in. Also, larger gardens might avoid infringing upon the law by creative responses like organizing themselves as two or more gardens smaller than the size limit.

Will hoophouses be permitted?

The proposed ordinance does limit the size and type of accessory structures (like sheds and greenhouses) permitted in community gardens to 10% of the area of the site or 100 square feet. Hoophouses (plastic high tunnels), however, are NOT considered part of the accessory structure limit since they do not have a foundation and can easily be taken down and moved.

How will the ordinance impact composting?

The proposed changes to the zoning code don’t create new rules or change current city rules about composting, which are based on state regulations prohibiting unpermitted compost facilities and landfills handling larger quantities of material generated on or off site. This law also prevents new landfills and transfer stations in our communities, and protects neighborhoods from having to host really messy, smelly, poorly managed sites without recourse.

When no materials can be composted from off-site, gardens are prevented from helping to recycle nutrients and build soil for their and their neighborhoods’ benefit. If we want other options, we need to seek changes to that state policy and the city ordinances that deal with composting. In the meantime, creating solid demonstrations of high-functioning, inoffensive, and vermin-free composting systems that get no complaints and do a splendid job recycling organic nutrients into new food will help the cause when time comes for policy change.

Will the ordinance prevent sales on-site?

The zoning code prohibits on-site sales in “community” gardens as part of distinguishing them from “commercial” gardens. This reflects pre-existing city law prohibiting all retail of any kind in residential districts, since many community gardens are located on land zoned residential or in residential areas. Most of the kinds of exchange that community gardens currently do ON SITE can and will continue to be accommodated by the code. Also, periodic community events with items for sale (similar to bake sales, rummage sales, educational events with things for sale) – are not considered “businesses” with those license and zoning requirements. If, however, a garden’s sales activities increased to the level of a business, the code would require a project to define itself as “commercial” rather than “community” garden.

If we reach the point that enough community gardens are in conflict with this restriction, perhaps the broader code prohibiting businesses in residential districts would need to be changed. One good thing about having explicit policy is that if or when examples arise that don’t match or fit that set of guidelines, we have something to work with. When enough examples don’t fit, it’s time to review and possibly modify the policy. Urban agriculture will keep growing, and we’ll need to shape policy along with it.

What will happen if a project falls outside the lines of the proposed ordinance?

When the code doesn’t allow a given project or activity “by right,” there may be several options, including:

  • changing the site’s zoning (requires seeking community and aldermanic approval).
  • thinking creatively in application of policy and practice
  • developing pilot projects to demonstrate successful alternatives

We may think of community and aldermanic hearings as time-consuming and unreliable, but they are a reasonable part of land use decisions in our neighborhoods. People may need to be creative and/or take on additional process if their project wants to color outside the lines – until it’s time to move those lines.

Also it is important to note that when dealing with real life scenarios there is often a good bit of wiggle room.

What will the new ordinance mean for projects that can make productive use of land “temporarily” or until another use for those vacant acres is proposed?

Urban agriculture may be the temporary best use for vacant land. Zoning should allow for flexible adaptation including urban agriculture, not requiring full zoning change or the site remediation and infrastructure of permanent acquisition and development. We certainly advocate participatory community process to review these cases. If done well, growing and making food available near people’s homes makes sense and improves our community food environment.

What’s next?

Following the zoning changes the City plans to formalize a set of Site Guidelines, which will guide community and commercial garden installations. Already concerns have been expressed that these guidelines will present difficult, costly, or time-consuming obstacles to innovative and holistic projects and neighborhood food security. The Resource Center/City Farm wrote an alternative to the city’s proposed ordinance to address more of these issues from the outset.

AUA intends to stay involved in that process as informed practitioners and community members, and work with city leaders and staff to deepen their knowledge base and experience with these issues. We want to promote both good policy and good practices into the future. We invite anyone interested to get in touch and join us in the effort!

About Advocates for Urban Agriculture:

AUA’s mission is to advance policy and practice for urban agriculture that provides as many people as possible with opportunities to grow significant quantities of healthy food in their neighborhoods. We want supportive city policies for all dimensions of the local food system and economy.

Interest in meeting local demand for fresh and healthy foods by growing it in backyards and on vacant lots is on the rise in Chicago and around the country. This movement has gained traction over the last several years, especially in large industrial cities such as Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland where there is a great deal of vacant land, but many neighborhoods lack a ready access to supermarkets or other fresh food sources. In these communities, especially, urban agriculture is increasingly seen as a positive solution.

Policy and conventions based on current (or past) conditions and assumptions need to change, now and in the future, to advance ecological sustainability and local economic resilience. Especially in the age of climate change, mixed and integrated systems call for a new view of zoning and land use approaches in the city — for neighborhood-based food and energy production, nutrient recycling, water conservation, and more. In the case of urban ag, the scale of growing sites and systems, on-site recycling of nutrients, and sale of food and other products are important aspects to develop.

AUA will continue to contribute to that process as informed practitioners and community members, and work with city leaders and staff to deepen their knowledge base and experience with these issues. We want to promote both good policy and good practices into the future.

We hope projects and ideas will move forward while we all stay in communication with our community of practice. When everyone runs into the same problems, we can shape strategy for change together. We recommend taking a constructive questioning approach to evaluate rules & regulations, and staying in conversation with the UA community and with “the city.” Much will be achieved through positive demonstrations — everyone is learning, and the examples on the ground provide the lessons. We can think of ourselves as ambassadors and invite (encourage!) others to learn with and from us.

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