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Earlier this month, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders and City Councilman Todd Gloria announced that the city was working to change zoning laws to make it legal for people to start community gardens on vacant commercial land citywide.

They hope to pass an ordinance by the summer.

But at the urging of council members, city staff is moving to loosen restrictions on the gardens even further, by making it easy and cheap to establish them on land zoned for residential use, too.

Zoning laws that city officials say are outdated make it nearly impossible, or very expensive, to legally establish a community garden on most vacant land within the city. They’re completely banned on empty land zoned for commercial uses like stores, and require a permit and approval that can cost more than $5,000 to get for residential land.

The city’s original plan was to first legalize community gardens on commercial land, and later work to eliminate the barriers for establishing them in residential neighborhoods. The city expected that to take more time because residents might be opposed to allowing community gardens in their neighborhoods without a review process in place.

But Dan Joyce, a senior city planner leading the effort, said the city’s Development Services Department now hopes to bring a single ordinance before the City Council that would free up both commercial and residential property.

On Tuesday, Joyce presented the new proposal to leaders from the city’s community planning groups. The groups currently have a say in approving garden applications for residential land, but the law change would eliminate that step — and its associated costs — and allow anyone to start a community garden as long as they had the landowner’s permission and followed certain rules.

Many of the members supported the idea, Joyce said, but raised concerns about operating hours and maintenance requirements that he now plans to address before asking the group to formally recommend the law change by the end of March.

Community garden advocates have been urging the city to change its zoning laws for years, arguing that San Diego had fallen behind other cities by making it so difficult for residents of dense urban neighborhoods to do something as simple as grow their own food.

Many residents, they said, had found available land and been ready to start planting only to find out they would be breaking the law by doing so.

The new law will still have to be vetted and recommended by other city groups, including the Planning Commission, before making it to the City Council for a vote later this year.

“My goal is before the end of June to have this thing done and approved. That’s my drop dead goal,” Joyce said.

If the City Council passes it, community gardens would be allowed on vacant land in most parts of the city by late summer. They would not be immediately allowed in coastal communities because of more stringent land use regulations there. Joyce said getting final approval there could take another year.

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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