Tag Archives: zoning

Stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen

Laura Berman updates us on the ongoing travails of John Hantz, the millionaire whose quest to develop a large-scale farm in Detroit have been, to date, quixotic:

Hantz’s larger plans have been waylaid by two major factors: the Michigan Right to Farm Law and uncertainty surrounding Mayor Dave Bing’s Detroit Works Project to shore up stable neighborhoods and offer incentives to relocate.

The farm law enables farmers to choose and raise their crops — a provision that empowers farmers in rural areas by allowing them to choose their own crops and types of agriculture. In the city, though, it could conceivably allow “farmers” to keep livestock.

The city is trying to find ways to modify the law so Detroit can regulate urban farms. In the meantime, Hantz is waiting.

A Wayne State law professor furnishes the rationale for amending Michigan’s Right to Farm Act:

In 2000, however, Michigan… banned city zoning of commercial farms, regardless of where they are located… The idea remained to protect those old family farms in areas where outlying suburbs had effectively become new cities, but the amended act has far broader consequences, because it can apply to all urban areas…

The act protects farmers by banning these suits, if their farms comply with Michigan Commission of Agriculture standards, known as Generally Accepted Agricultural and Management Practices, (GAAMPs)… Cities may request a modification of GAAMP standards, but granting it is solely within the commission’s discretion. It may only grant exceptions for adverse effects on the environment or public health, but not for odor, noise, appearances, reduced property values and land use conflicts.

Proponents argue improbably that the commission can prepare an “urban GAAMP” to address city concerns. This begs the question of whose interests will prevail when farming operations move to the city and conflict with city residents. In a rural setting, the act appropriately prefers farmers. In urban areas, it is unlikely that the pro-farming commission will protect city residents first.

On the opposite side, we have the Michigan Farm Bureau, which has a much simpler argument and a predictably rosy view of the status quo :

The Right to Farm Act allows local governments to enact additional ordinances, subject to review by the Michigan Commission of Agriculture. We urge Detroit to work through this established process.

Who do you find more trustworthy, the Big Agriculture lobbyist or the legal expert?  Guess which one Michigan’s lawmakers are going to listen to?  Classic example of how, as Jim Russell observes, ‘Cities are often at odds with their host states.’

Fortunately, I don’t much care about who prevails at this point.  I am so over the whole urban farming thing, not so much because it doesn’t have some potential but because it is so far from any kind of viable economic realization.  I know the media likes it and the hippie-environmentalist types like it, but let’s move on, people.  Stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen. Update: I have been called out for painting with a bit too broad a brush here — see the comments section.

In other news, according to the Free Press, Mayor Bing is billing ‘cheap land’ as one of the city’s selling points.  A whole bunch of palms better be hitting the collective foreheads over that one.  At least, I like to think all the brainpower at DEGC, the Convention & Visitors’ Bureau, the Regional Chamber, and Business Leaders for Michigan can come up with something better than that.


Growing pains: commercial farming in Detroit

There’s been lots of hype surrounding the idea that Detroit’s future lies in urban farming.  A story in today’s Detroit Free Press suggests that’s just what it is — hype.  They interview Gary Wozniak, who is leading the effort to put together a 20-acre farm on the east side:

‘”I think the problem is the city doesn’t want to make a decision, quite honestly,” Wozniak said this month. “Every time we think we’ve reached a certain plateau, we get another excuse.”…
Dan Carmody, president of the nonprofit Eastern Market Corp., supports a more localized food system, but he said some delays are understandable, given the complexities of the issues.
“It’s a new kind of industry, and there are some growing pains associated with it,” Carmody said.
But city officials cite various issues that need to be overcome before they can approve larger-scale commercial farming in the city.
For one thing, there still is no zoning classification for growing food inside the city. Officials also are worried that Michigan’s Right to Farm law, which protects rural farmers against the encroachments of suburban sprawl, might be used by businessmen like Hantz to avoid regulation by the city after initial approval is given.
Then, too, many of Detroit’s nonprofit community gardeners are urging the city to reject Hantz’s proposal, viewing for-profit farming in the city as exploitation and a land grab. Critics worry that ordinary citizens won’t benefit if profits go mainly to wealthy business owners.

The Detroit News has previously reported on Mayor Bing’s skepticism about farming in the city:

One element that may not be a major focus of the (Detroit land use) plan, however, is urban farming.

“We want to be open-minded and look and see where it does make sense,” Bing said. “(But) for it to become a major industry in the city of Detroit , I haven’t bought into that yet.”

(Christine MacDonald.  “Bing briefs City Council on Detroit land use plan, braces for some ‘pushback.'”  The Detroit News, September 9, 2010)

A couple of personal observations:

First, while their city may appear to outsiders to be in desperate straits, Detroiters are just as resistant to change in zoning, and guard city-owned physical assets, just as jealously as residents anywhere else.

Second, although the Free Press story touched only briefly on it, I suspect the major impediment to proceeding with larger-scale farming in Detroit, whether for- or non-profit, is that Right to Farm law.  While I haven’t reviewed the legislation, it was likely designed with rural farming and rural communities in mind.  Needless to say, regulation appropriate for rural places may not work at all in urban ones.  The matter is complicated further by the very patchwork nature of present-day Detroit, where dense neighborhoods often directly adjoin prairie.  I would not be surprised if expansion of farming in Detroit required change in state law — and if that’s the case, Wozniak and John Hantz and their fellow aspiring farmers are going to be waiting a long, long time.