UDI gets OK to build farm

May. 07, 2014 @ 06:50 PM

A local nonprofit has secured the City Council’s permission to build a 5.9-acre “aquaponics” farm at East Cornwallis Road and Industry Lane.

The 6-0 vote came at the request of the UDI Community Development Corp. Its leader, Ed Stewart, said the project should create about 40 jobs.

UDI is working with a local aquaponics advocate, Kevin Hamak, who intends to grow fruit, vegetables and fish. Water circulating through the fish tanks will fertilize the soil the plants grow in.

The council’s vote changed the zoning of the site from office to residential, specifically a suburban zone that also allows agriculture.

A lawyer representing UDI, Patrick Byker, said UDI had tried for years to market the property for office development, only to find “there simply is not demand for office at this location” given that much of it is in a floodplain.

The aquaponics angle should help the farm be “financially sustainable,” by eliminating the need to purchase the ordinary types of supplemental fertilizers, Byker said.

Its fish tanks will house tilapia and perch, whose normal byproducts will stand in as sources of nitrogen and phosphorous.

Engaging in a bit of civic cheerleading, Byker said the project should “further enhance Durham’s reputation as a leader in the farm-to-table movement.”

Monday’s vote came about a year after the City Council relaxed the rules on urban agriculture. It acted then at the behest of the leaders of the South Durham Farmers’ Market, who’d complained about having had trouble finding a place to set up shop.

At the time, there were doubts about whether the change would allow an aquaponics operation.

City/county planners said they wanted to “take a little more time” to be sure the technology, promoted by researchers at N.C. State University, didn’t any have noxious off-site effects.

They now say aquaponics falls under the city zoning law’s existing definition of agriculture, which allows “fish hatcheries or aquaculture” in some parts of the city on equal footing with crop production.

Councilwoman Diane Catotti asked whether there are any odor problems associated with aquaponics. Byker and Hamak assured her there are not.

Hamak also promised the operation won’t house any animals other than fish. That answered a question from Councilman Don Moffitt, and a concern that earlier this spring prompted a sole dissent from one member of the Durham Planning Commission.

The dissenter, David Harris, objected because UDI didn’t attach a site plan to the zoning application. That means it could put “any agricultural development” there, not just an aquaponics farm, he said.

But the full commission voted 12-1 in March to advise elected officials to OK the project.

The council’s approval wasn’t unanimous because Mayor Bill Bell abstained from Monday’s vote. He is UDI’s chief operating officer.