Kingston’s current zoning laws prohibit various forms of agriculture, but now recommendations and goals to promote farming outlined in a study funded by private citizens will likely be adopted in the new comprehensive plan, at least in part. That means some of the city’s vacant lots could one day be transformed into blooming vegetable gardens, with the produce sold in the neighborhood. Already, that vision is bearing fruit at the Kingston YMCA Farm Project, which is one of several farm-to-table initiatives in the city.
Last Wednesday, April 23, the Common Council’s Public Safety Committee passed a resolution accepting the Kingston Urban Agricultural Committee’s (KUAC) Urban Agriculture Planning and Zoning Study. On May 6, the resolution was adopted unanimously by the council as a whole, which passed it along to the Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee. The study is the first step in eliminating at least some of the zoning barriers that prohibit urban agriculture, although it is up to the to steering committee to adopt the suggested changes. (The committee is currently awaiting the draft of the comprehensive plan from consultants Shuster-Turner Associates, which is due any day, according to City Planner Suzanne Cahill.)
“What we pull from the recommendations will be decided on an individual basis,” said Ward 5 Alderman Bill Carey, chair of the steering committee. Carey said this won’t be just another study that sits on a shelf, but a document “we can look into periodically and see what we can do now that doesn’t cost a lot of money.” He also noted that since the study cost the taxpayer nothing and better positions the city for possible grants, “it’s a win-win.”
Support for urban agriculture within the city limits is “clearly the political will,” said Jennifer Schwartz Berky, whose planning consultancy, Hone Strategic, was commissioned by the KUAC to write the report. The study was funded by a $13,000 donation to the KUAC, which is an outgrowth of the Kingston Land Trust, from local residents Kevin McEvoy and Barbara Epstein and other citizens.
Schwartz Berky said that removing the current barriers to urban farming and implementing programs that support farming in the city “is a no-brainer, given the opportunity for economic development, social empowerment, better health and food security.”
In compiling the report, which is the first phase of what she and KUAC hope is a two-phase process, Schwartz Berky reviewed the city’s current zoning statues and ordinances and focused on those laws that specifically impact urban agriculture, such as statutes dealing with appearances, the acceptable accessory structures for a property, allowed uses for vacant land and even parking requirements that might apply for, say, erection of a farm stand. She then compared those regulations to the ordinances governing urban agriculture in Cleveland, Seattle, and Boston — cities known for their progressive, cutting-edge green policies. “You look at the best practices and try to adapt them to local circumstances,” she said.
Eight-hundred acres of land
For example, one of her recommendations is turning vacant land into farms (in some cases the farms could be temporary, pending development of the site). Kingston has 800 acres of vacant land, 38 of which are owned by the city. Farming 35 of those acres would not only improve the environment but also boost economic development, according to Schwartz Berky. Using information on crop yields and other data quantified from the best practices of these other cities as well as a study from Michigan State, she calculated the benefits as follows:
- Creation of 150 jobs, based on two to five farming jobs created per acre
- Creation of additional jobs in the agricultural services sector (equipment sales, composting and soil inputs, and food processing)
- Sequestration of about 77 tons of carbon dioxide in well-maintained soil per year
- The development of related compost markets would yield an additional 3,330 tons of avoided carbon emissions annually while helping Kingston reduce the overall waste generated in the city by 20 percent
- Generation of over 1 million pounds of fresh produce for sale into local markets
- Generation of 4 million servings of fresh produce to Kingstonites annually. (For a population of 24,000 people, this is about 175 servings per person per year.)
A variety of organizations — including the Kingston Land Trust, whose numerous community gardens and other programs spearheaded the greening of Kingston, the Kingston Farmers’ Market, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ulster County and the city’s own Conservation Advisory Council — have helped create a groundswell of support for urban agriculture in the city. Schwartz Berky said another goal of the report is to set up a basic support for local farming by coordinating city government and agencies with nonprofit pro-farming organizations.
Better food for hard-pressed people
Implementing what she hopes, depending on additional funding, will be Phase 2 of the KUAC urban agriculture project would entail setting up an actual program, which might include formation of a land bank, a special permitting system allowing for farming on private property and helping young farmers obtain credit. City farmers “could have tenure for at least three years on city-owned land and get help with business planning, best uses of the land, et cetera,” she said. “We might also work with local institutions, such as hospitals, the government and schools, on a farm-to-table program.”