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At least two cities in San Diego County have already taken proactive steps to make community gardens easier to set up on vacant properties within city limits. As I wrote Thursday, that’s something a group of advocates is trying to get the city of San Diego to do.

In February, Chula Vista’s City Council approved an ordinance allowing community gardens on vacant city-owned land, citing the need for more open space and local production of fresh food. Community groups there had been lobbying the city to do more to promote the gardens citywide.

The new law allows community groups to submit a proposal to the city’s public works department to use a vacant city-owned parcel — with the exception of city parks. It requires the groups to prove they can manage the garden and pay utility costs, make it accessible to disabled residents and collect 30 signatures from neighbors indicating support.

It also limits use of the city land to five years, but allows the city to grant shorter or longer agreements. The council also asked staff to seek out locations for community gardens and said it would consider adopting policies to promote community gardens on private land and in redevelopment zones.

And more than a decade ago, Escondido passed a law exempting community gardens from zoning requirements that prohibited them, restrictions similar to the ones San Diego residents currently face.

But there, the main motivator was not increasing access to fresh, nutritious food. The ordinance was passed well before the small-scale urban agriculture movement had gained full force. Instead, the city’s housing and neighborhood services department was concerned about the high number of ugly, vacant properties.

“It started with the specific and went more global,” the city’s housing director told the nonprofit Prevention Institute in 1998. “We were trying to remove unsightly properties and, at the same time, there was a growing interest in community gardening. This led to the idea that you could put community gardens in a vacant lot.”

Residents are required to get a no-fee permit, but then are free to let their gardens grow.

On Friday, San Diego City Councilman Todd Gloria, chairman of the council’s land use and housing committee, acknowledged that San Diego has some catching up to do. He sent out a Twitter message, saying:

We’ve done a lot of work on community gardens but more must be done. This is a legislative priority for me in ’11.

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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