Urban Farms: Mediation Bears No Fruit
Compromise seems unlikely in debate
City Council's recommended mediation, held Monday evening, over city staff's proposed revisions to the city's urban farm code, has thus far yielded little, if any, result. On Oct. 17, when it became clear that stakeholders were strongly polarized on the issue, Council postponed its consideration of the proposed revisions – which would permit but regulate such farms – and sent the dispute to mediation in hopes of finding common ground.
There were eight participants in Monday's private meeting, mediated by former state District Judge Bob Perkins. In support of the proposed revisions were Paula Foore of Springdale Farm, Judith McGeary of Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, Katherine Nicely of the Sustainable Food Policy Board, and Govalle Neighborhood Association Chair Nine Francois. In opposition were Susana Almanza of People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources, Daniel Llanes of PODER and the Govalle/Johnston Terrace Neighborhood Plan Contact Team, David King of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, and Gilberto Rivera, chair of the Community Development Commission.
After the meeting, Nicely said a compromise at this point seems unlikely. "It seems like we're not getting anywhere. We don't know what the middle ground is." Although the proposed code revisions are on today's (Nov. 21) Council agenda, opponents have requested another postponement for additional mediation.
The Govalle/Johnston Terrace group has proposed additional regulations: prohibiting future urban farms in residential zoning, imposing a minimum size requirement of five acres, and requiring new applications for urban farm status to go through the neighborhood plan amendment process, in addition to other restrictions. And market gardens – agricultural operations under one acre with stringent restrictions on commercial activities – would not be permitted. The proposal would grandfather and exempt the Boggy Creek, Springdale, Rain Lily, and HausBar farms, and recognize without penalty their urban farm status. The grandfathering would be governed under the previous code, apply only to those four farms, and would not transfer with the properties. As presented, it would exclude Agua Dulce Farm, a single-family zoned urban farm in Southeast Austin, specializing in aquaponics. According to Agua Dulce owner Jack Waite, "What Mr. Llanes and Ms. Almanza propose is ridiculous. Urban farms are a community resource and need to be promoted and helped out by the city through code changes, not restricted. The points of their argument continue to change, suggesting to me that they are just trying to chalk up 'wins' they can tout to neighborhood groups should they decide to run for City Council in the next election."
Almanza and Llanes did not respond to requests for comment, but have said previously that they represent the interests of the entire neighborhood, and that they are defending East Austin from encroaching gentrification, commercialization, and the loss of tracts of land that could be used for affordable housing. They have said the farms impose nuisances – smells, traffic, etc. – on neighboring residents, and they have received support from some representatives of other neighborhoods, who see the farms as potentially threatening neighborhood integrity by allowing commercial operations and events on residential property. "The farms' move toward commercialization of single-family zoning," Almanza and Llanes wrote in a Statesman op-ed, "goes against what this neighborhood has fought so hard to create, in what the city, and the nation, now recognize as a premium Downtown neighborhood."
A barrage of editorials in the Austin American-Statesman have repeatedly and misleadingly denounced the farms as promoting "slaughterhouses" incompatible with single-family zoning. Rosa Santis, a board member of Southwest Key as well as of Mexic-Arte Museum, owns numerous properties near Springdale Farm, where she has posted signs reading, "Is it an urban farm or special event center?" and "Say 'No' to the commercialization of single-family zoned land! Say 'No' to the slaughtering of animals! Say 'No' to urban farm ordinance."
Similar signs posted at La Fuente Learning Center were removed by the school, returned by Llanes, and removed again by the school. Earlier this month, Llanes reportedly threatened to call the police on an employee of Eden East, the farm-to-table restaurant located on Springdale Farm, blaming them for the removal.* Springdale's Paula Foore says, "That's what's been hard, not to take it personally. What are we doing wrong? It's getting more and more critical for HausBar [partially closed until the regulations are resolved]. For us, it's more emotional. It gets more divisive throughout the community the more lies they tell."
Julian Fernandez of the conjunto band Los Texas Wranglers lives near HausBar, and says the farm is a breath of fresh air and a reminder of how his grandparents used to live. He rejects the notion that Llanes or Almanza speak for the neighborhood. "That's a lie, that's a lie. That's a lie," he insisted. "They do not represent the Govalle community. No one that I know of ... no one has ever heard anything of what Almanza or Llanes has brought up against the farm."
Neighbor Laura Smith agrees. Smith, who has owned a home and lived in Govalle since March 2004, raises her two daughters near HausBar Farms. "When I heard Daniel Llanes speaking in front of the Planning Commission, talking about longtime Govalle residents and purporting to know their preferences, I decided to reach out and have one-on-one conversations with my neighbors, in an attempt to find out for myself how they felt." Smith said she spoke to 21 neighbors within a quarter mile of HausBar Farms and Boggy Creek – all decades-long residents. Only three, she reported, had ambivalent or negative responses – most expressed a positive opinion of the farms.
"I would summarize it this way," Smith said. "There is a spectrum, and on one end you have 'I don't have a problem with the farms. They don't bother me.' On the other end of the same spectrum, you have 'I love the farms.' These 18 residents fell somewhere on that spectrum." Smith is expected to bring her findings to city leaders at tonight's Council meeting.
*Correction: This sentence initially appeared within quotation marks, in error.