West and Southwest Philadelphia residents have seen the growth of community gardens in recent years.
However, some fear that a bill introduced by Councilman Brian J. O’Neill of Northeast Philadelphia could change that.
Bill Number 120917 would place new restrictions on who can own these gardens, where they can be located and would drastically change procedures for applying for urban gardens.
“In November, Councilman O’Neill introduced an amendment to existing zoning laws,” said Amy Laura Cahn of the Public Interest Law Center. “Originally the bill prohibited community market plots and gardens outright and the impact would be felt greatly.”
Cahn said community and market farming have existed for quite sometime in Philadelphia and O’Neill’s bill has been revised to require special exemptions for some gardens and farms.
These restrictions are believed by some to produce serious financial burdens and other obstacles to those desiring to acquire such gardens.
“Special exemptions mean that you could go to License and Inspections to apply for a ‘use registration permit’ and, instead of just getting a permit over the counter, you would actually have to go back to the Zoning Board of Adjustments,” Cahn said.
Then there’s the $250 fee that would be required, applicants would need a letter of support from the Registered Community Organization (RGO) in their neighborhood, have to post a public notice and, incorporated non-profit groups would be required to retain legal counsel to represent them before the Zoning Board.
“It’s a lot of bureaucracy,” Cahn said.
Cahn believes such regulations are unnecessary impediments since current zoning laws already contain safeguards which requires community gardeners to be good neighbors and which governs the use and maintenance of urban gardens.
Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell said she was unaware of any plans that would have the have the effect of possibly eradicating community gardens as some residents fear this bill would do.
“I am sure that community gardens will always exist in one form or another,” Blackwell said. “Community gardens are important, especially now when we talk about the environment, the ozone layer and the importance of community.”
Blackwell also said that community gardens not only beautify the neighborhoods but also increase the property value of the homes, which exist within those neighborhoods making community gardens an asset.
“The move across the nation is to become more green and for us to think that we would close community gardens don’t make sense,” Blackwell said.
“I think it is undeniable that it [O’Neill’s bill] would have a negative impact,” said Jon McGoran, of Weavers Lake Coop, whose community gardens and farms in not only provide local produce for residents of the area, but feed the homeless residents of a local shelter and educate neighbors about farming and nutrition.
“Creating a community is a great thing,” McGoran said. “It is a real benefit to the community and it is a real benefit to the people who do it; it brings healthy food at very low costs to the neighborhood and provide a way for neighbors to work together as well as transform vacant lots into something beautiful.”
Community gardening is hard work, according to McGoran, and the people who do it should be applauded.
“The last thing you would want to do is to put up obstacles to it and that’s exactly what this bill would do,” McGoran said.
Cahn and McGoran said concerned residents should call their local and at-large council persons to express their opinions about the bill.
O’Neill’s office has not responded to interview requests on the subject.