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Council: Eat Your Vegetables!

Both sides of urban farm debate declare victory

By Michael King, Fri., Nov. 29, 2013

Council: Eat Your Vegetables!
Photo by John Anderson

Although City Council often gets blamed for pleasing nobody, entering this week's Thanksgiving break it might well be applauded for finding the sweet spot between urban farm enthusiasts and opponents. Last Thursday night, Council approved new regulations for the small farms, but without the aspect most galling to opponents: the alleged "slaughterhouses" for chickens and rabbits that had become such a flash point, hyperbolically amplified by an editorial drumbeat in the Statesman. (There's talk of siting a central processing facility in a commercial area, since the revised regs will allow some raising of small animals for off-premise slaughter.) Other restrictions would limit the number of special events, but there was no "grandfathering" of existing farms to current owners only, and the ordinance (to take effect in four months) recognizes that farms are neighborhood assets, not nuisances to be narrowly proscribed. (Speaking of "special events," a seemingly innocuous attempt to form a Council subcommittee on that contentious subject foundered after a cryptic disagreement over the membership.)

Nearly 500 people registered to speak on urban farms, and the odd, negotiated number of 39 minutes of testimony for each side symbolically reflected how polarized the antagonists had become. That both sides have since declared victory suggests how precisely Council managed to find a middle course on the debate.

The other comestible question on the agenda – "Healthy Food Zones" – didn't fare nearly as well, as a proposal by Council Members Laura Morrison and Mike Mar­tin­ez to investigate how best to promote the availability of healthier food choices near schools and recreation areas failed (4-3, with only Kathie Tovo joining the ayes) after being blasted by a range of witnesses representing fast-food restaurants and convenience store owners. Nominally, the argument was over theoretical "restrictions" in the draft ordinance; but prior to the meeting, local talk radio had gotten hold of the subject and beat it to a premature death, as though the Nanny State was about to descend on Austin and force residents to subsist on nothing but broccoli and quinoa.

Chalk up this defeat, in part, to absolute "government transparency": Had all Council members been able to consider the proposal at least briefly in advance of the public meeting, chances are the draft that hit the dais would have been phrased inoffensively and passed without controversy, as the anodyne proposal it was.

Those were the hottest-button items to reach a vote. Postponed "indefinitely" was the latest iteration of a rental registration pilot program for certain neighborhoods, yet another quixotic attempt to better enforce code compliance by negligent landlords (see Sunday's Statesman front page takeout, rather embarrassing to City Hall); the pilot will almost certainly return in revised form. The scheduled "Project Connect" briefing, on the just-proposed urban rail route, was postponed to Dec. 12 – no vote is scheduled until next year, the delay a point of controversy among transit advocates who say the project (and the "Highland" route) has already run itself off the rails. And the vexed Austin Energy question of how best to handle hardship delinquent accounts was postponed to Dec. 5 – when Council reappears in the guise of the AE board, a role it finally declined to abandon in the last round of organizational revisions.

So Council itself gets a holiday break – but the council members' work never ends.

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