Planners support loosening Durham agriculture limits

Dec. 12, 2012 @ 08:03 PM

An ordinance that would loosen existing restrictions on where farmers’ markets and farms can operate in Durham picked up a key endorsement this week from the Durham Planning Commission.

Members backed the proposal on a 12-1 vote, the only dissent coming from city delegate Melvin Whitley.

Officials started working on it in the spring, after organizers of the new South Durham Farmers’ Market complained they were having trouble finding a place to set up shop.

The South Durham market has since opened at the Greenwood Commons Shopping Center on N.C. 55 and operates every Saturday.

But that was a second-choice site for organizers because they had to meet rules that confined them to land zoned for commercial uses. Elected officials quickly signaled that they wanted to help.

The resulting rules package includes “items we felt were no-brainers, things that would unambiguously benefit the community,” Assistant Planning Director Pat Young said.

The proposal endorsed by the Planning Commission would allow farmers’ markets on any land zoned for business use. Markets could also set up in residential zones if they can find a church, school or governmental facility within them that’s willing to allow the use of its property.

Markets would have to obtain a permit and renew it each year, allowing the city/county zoning inspections staff to keep tabs on whether they’re complying with restrictions on what they can sell.

The proposal would allow markets to trade only in foods and beverages, farm products or “value-added” farm products. The latter term covers processed items like baked goods, cheese or sausage.

The restrictions are supposed to prevent the sale of craft goods and other items that could wind up making a farmers’ market look more like a flea market.

But they’re also causing friction with farmers’ market and “urban agriculture” advocates who say the sale of craft goods can help the balance sheets of low-margin local farms.

Kathryn Spann, chairwoman of the South Durham market, told Planning Commission members that she’d prefer seeing farmers markets allowed to devote up to 25 percent of their trade to crafts.

Their presence “contributes to the vibrant feel” of a market and can also be documented “without hitting that slippery slope the Planning Department has expressed concern about,” she said.

But Young said his boss, City/County Planning Director Steve Medlin, doubts whether an ordinance-defined percentage of trade is enforceable.

“Durham County is one of the smallest counties in North Carolina geographically, but it’s still pretty big with [just] four zoning enforcement officers,” Young said, adding that planners suspect operators less ethical than Spann and her colleagues would try to skirt the rules.

As for farming itself, the rules package would allow people to grow commercial crops anywhere in the city, instead of, as now, restricting it to land zoned for very low density, rural-style residential development.

Growers could also sell their produce on-site, subject to a requirement to install parking if they erect a permanent store.

Those changes only affect the city, as state law allows anyone to engage in agriculture as a matter of right outside the city limits.

The farming rules bar also “aquaponics,” a technique touted by researchers at N.C. State University where farmers grow produce “within water that also contains fish and [use] the effluent from the fish to produce the nutrients for the plants,” Senior Planner Michael Stock said.

Young said city/county planners aren’t opposed to aquaponics, but think such operations are likely enough to have off-site effects that rules for them require added research and “a little more robust community process” to weigh the pros and cons.

The department’s stance dismays aquaponics advocates like Kevin Hamak, who’s already begun lobbying City Council members who will decide the issue early next year.

Spann also noted that while planners say they’re willing to conduct a second round of revisions, that will take time and also require elected officials to give it priority.

“We are a small fish in [the Planning Department’s] work plan and it’s going to be hard for us to come back up again,” she said. “We feel pressure to get it right this time.”