For two years, Judy Jacoby has been canvassing uptown neighborhoods like North Park and Hillcrest in search of the perfect plot of land for a community garden, with no luck.

A vacant parcel on Park Boulevard near El Cajon Boulevard looked like a perfect place. But then she did a little research and learned the parcel was zoned for commercial use. The city does not allow community gardens on commercial land.

“And that was it,” Jacoby said. She didn’t even bother to call the owner.

It’s become a recurring and familiar end in Jacoby’s quest to start a community garden near her North Park home, and it’s left her and others with similar ambitions frustrated at just how prohibitive the city’s land-use laws are for those who’d just like to grow their own food on some of the city’s many empty lots.

As major cities across the country have embraced community gardens and streamlined the process for establishing them, in the city of San Diego, the barriers remain high.

In the densely populated parts of the city where community gardens could be most beneficial, there are few parcels of property zoned to allow them with few strings attached. On residential property, where they are allowed, just getting permission from the city, in the form of a permit, costs thousands of dollars. In many places they’re not allowed at all.

“There isn’t available land fitting the narrow criteria the city allows, and then the cost of the permitting is just excessive. That’s been the killer,” Jacoby said.

Now, a coalition of nonprofit groups and fresh food advocates is embarking on a grassroots quest. It’s trying to get the city to allow community gardens — where land is divided into multiple gardening plots — on almost any piece of vacant property, regardless of how it’s zoned.

The change would make it easier to establish community gardens on private land within the city, potentially transforming the landscape and placing San Diego in the company of cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Seattle, whose laws promote small scale urban agriculture.

“Quite frankly, this should be a fairly quick, modest reform,” said Parke Troutman, one of the leaders of the effort. “It’s not like this is something dramatic that isn’t being done elsewhere and that will have all sorts of unforeseen consequences. It’s just trying to get San Diego in line with other places.”

But the effort faces obstacles, namely from resident-led community planning groups, whose role it is to be a watchdog of sorts over development and land use in the city’s neighborhoods. They would have to agree to relinquish some of the responsibility they currently have for reviewing proposed gardens in their communities, a prospect some have resisted.

Nonetheless, during the last year, Troutman and others have been making the rounds to the city’s planning groups, trying to convince them to support a law change that would make the groups less relevant to the community garden approval process, and thus make permitting less expensive for applicants.

They envision a place where festering vacant properties along desolate commercial strips or in deteriorating residential neighborhoods could be turned into islands of lush green, turning blight into fresh food.

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They have some ways to go.

There are only a few types of land in the city where community gardens are allowed without a costly permit: in limited cases on land meant for open space like parks, and on property zoned for agricultural use.

But not surprisingly, in urban neighborhoods where community gardens are most in demand, including in some of the city’s poorest, there is little, if any, land zoned for agriculture. Most land is commercial, residential, or industrial.

And the city bans community gardens on all commercial land. It allows them on residential and some types of industrial property, but applicants have to pay a $5,000 deposit, money the city uses to review the proposal, bring it before a community planning group for a recommendation, and issue a special neighborhood use permit.

Those requirements, say the advocates pushing for a law change, have been the death blow for many short-lived community garden proposals. Few nonprofits, let alone local residents’ groups in the city’s low-income neighborhoods, could afford that expense, effectively banning productive use of otherwise fallow land.

The city’s rules are intended to promote certain types of growth and define neighborhood character. Permit applications in residential areas, for example, are intended to give residents a say in what type of activity happens near their homes. Allowing community gardens on commercial land could undermine the economic potential of the property.

Supporters of the change reason that gardens are better than vacant lots even if they’re only temporary, though Councilman Todd Gloria, chairman of the city’s Land Use and Housing Committee, also said some residents had raised concerns that temporary gardens can be difficult to shut down, if only for emotional reasons, once an owner is ready to develop the land.

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In the city’s neighborhoods, the effect of the city’s restrictions on gardens are on full display. A proposed community garden in southeastern San Diego’s Mt. Hope neighborhood illustrates the conundrum.

In October, the Southeastern Economic Development Corp. approved a three year lease to allow a local nonprofit to start a community garden on a piece of city-owned land. The City Council is expected to consider the lease next month, but even if it’s approved, the garden won’t be allowed because the land is zoned for commercial use. The nonprofit, Project New Village, is moving forward with the lease anyway, hoping the pieces will eventually fall into place.

“Many more gardens can’t even be considered,” said Diane Moss, the garden’s organizer.

The requirements have also held up progress on another garden’s revival. After a group of Cambodian refugees were evicted this summer from an informal community garden they had tended for 26 years, nonprofit advocates got together to discuss how they might reclaim the city-owned parcel for the poor farmers who had depended on it to feed themselves. But they decided they couldn’t afford the permitting fees, and have taken a stand against what they think are the city’s onerous requirements.

In the meantime, Samol Ye, one of those farmers, has visited the garden several times a week, just to cry. She stands outside its now-padlocked gate and takes stock of the crops she never got to harvest, which are now brown and dead. Then, she said through an interpreter one recent afternoon, she goes home to “watch TV until I’m crazy.”

There are a handful of other gardens across the city, but several are operating illegally without required permits, said Jacoby, who is director of the San Diego County Master Gardener Association. Their proprietors have tried to stay under the radar and avoid complaints from neighbors that might bring the gardens to the city’s attention, forcing them to close.

If cities like Los Angeles and Seattle are any example, a more liberal land-use law would allow community gardens to flourish in San Diego. But amending the city’s land development code to cut out the review process and community planning groups, and thus the cost, would require widespread support from those very groups. Their recommendations weigh heavily on the Planning Commission and City Council when officials make decisions on proposed developments or land-use amendments.

Troutman and the group he’s working with, the One In Ten Coalition, have targeted planning groups in the city’s urban core, and have secured votes of support from five of the city’s 42. But they’ve encountered pushback from others.

“There’s been resistance among community planning groups to approving anything that would potentially evade review by the community planning groups,” said Leo Wilson, chairman of uptown’s community planning group, which a year ago voted to put off approving a recommendation. “They like the idea of community gardens, they just want to know what’s going in. Who’s going to be there? What will the hours be? Will there be neighborhood disturbances?”

Councilman Gloria said he supported changing the city’s land-use laws, but that support from community groups would be essential.

“If you can’t build the community support to permit them, we can’t change that,” he said.

The city’s budget problems, which have cut staff at the Development Services Department, have forced the advocates for the change to mostly go it alone.

Dan Joyce, a senior city planner, said “the real issue at this point is we have certain other things we have to get done with limited staff, and to go out and do community outreach is really one of the biggest time consumers of an ordinance like this, especially when you have groups that are opposed. We’re working with the nonprofit groups and telling them, ‘If you get community support for us, we can do this.’”

Gloria acknowledged that the city was behind many others in encouraging the growth of community gardens, and that he would support putting a law change on the agenda.

“By and large the public wants it. People have concerns but I don’t think they’re insurmountable. Communities across the country are doing this, and so should we.”

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.325.0528 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.

Adrian Florido

Adrian Florido is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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