Urban-farm rules pass Durham council

Mar. 22, 2013 @ 07:46 PM

City Council members have approved an ordinance that loosens restrictions on farming and the placement of farmers’ markets within the city limits.

The 6-0 vote completed work on an ordinance that started last year after organizers of the South Durham Farmers’ Market complained they were having trouble finding a place to set up shop.

The new rules allow markets to operate on any land zoned for business use, and in residential zones when they can find a church, school or governmental facility that’s willing to host them.

South Durham market leaders welcomed the change, though they wound up opening last year on Saturdays at the Greenwood Commons Shopping Center along N.C. 55.

“We believe it is vital to agriculture in Durham, both rural and urban, that farmers’ markets be allowed as close to residential neighborhoods – where people live – as possible,” Pete Schubert, a spokesman for the South Durham market, told council members before they approved the ordinance on a 6-0 vote.

The new rules also allow commercial crop production throughout the city, removing controls that previously limited it to rural areas on its fringes.

Both moves put the council on the side of the “local food” movement, which argues that it’s better to grow crops locally than truck them in from the other side of the country.

“This is a great step forward,” said Councilman Steve Schewel, acknowledging that more changes to Durham’s farming rules could be in store.

Officials have fielded requests that they loosen curbs on “aquaponics,” composting and the sale of craft goods at farmers’ markets.

Aquaponics is an offshoot of farming touted by researchers at N.C. State University that combines the growing of fish and crops in water.

Doing as fish do, they convert food into the nutrients the crops need to thrive and can also be sold to consumers, Senior Planner Michael Stock said.

The city for now bars aquaponics, but council members said the City/County Planning Department should look into future rules changes that would allow such operations.

“We just wanted to take a little more time to be sure that where we would allow it, it’s done in an appropriate manner,” Stock said, explaining why planners didn’t rule the issue into the same bill as the changes for farmers’ markets and urban farms.

Similarly, council members signaled that they’re willing to consider loosening limits on where businesses can produce compost for sale and to revisit the crafts issue.

Local-food advocates want craft sales allowed at markets to strengthen the markets’ finances. But city/county planners worry that a badly written rules package would allow flea markets to emerge.

Council members agreed that the changes approved so far were an appropriate “quick fix” to some of the problems the South Durham Farmers’ Market ran into.

In farming, “you have to plow to the end of the row,” Councilman Eugene Brown said. “We’re not quite there at the end of the row of this ordinance, but I think we’ve made enough progress that we can move forward.”