Patricia Johnson wants to expand a program that employs young people to grow produce in a garden near the West Oakland Bart Station, but finding a long-term, dedicated garden plot in Oakland – even with the city’s vacant lot surplus – is not easy.
Now, Oakland and cities across California can support urban farmers like Johnson with the help of legislation signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in late September. The new law allows municipalities to lower taxes on vacant property if an owner agrees to dedicate the land to small-scale crop production for at least five years.
“This legislation aligns the interests of urban farm projects, which can put vacant land to productive use immediately, and land owners, who may need time to develop plans for their land,” said Johnson, director of the WOW Farm program. “Residents win when vacant lots improve their neighborhood rather than attracting nuisance.”
During the recession, several California cities helped activate vacant space slated for later development by encouraging temporary uses, such as art installations, pop-up retail shops and gardens, but the idea of a tax break is new. The legislation, authored by Assemblyman and former San Francisco Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting, took inspiration from cities like San Francisco and Oakland, which have backed urban agriculture initiatives, community gardens and the creative land use concepts.
The new law creates “Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones,” which are in urbanized areas defined by the U.S. Census that include at least 250,000 residents. Within those zones, the county assessor can lower the assessed value of property dedicated to agriculture to a rate based on California’s average of per-acre irrigated crop land. In 2012 that rate was $12,000 per acre.
Before the legislation can apply in Oakland — as well as other California cities — the city must approve a local ordinance, which also needs sign-off from the County Board of Supervisors. Once the local law is established, landowners interested in the tax reduction would have to agree to terms with a tenant and also enter a contract with their city to restrict the use of their land.
Governor Brown signed the bill on September 28 and many of California’s cities and counties are still digesting it. San Francisco Supervisor David Chiu is working on an ordinance and legislators in Sacramento and Los Angeles have expressed interest.
Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson is awaiting an analysis of the bill from the Alameda County Counsel’s office, according to Amy Shrago, a legislative analyst in Carson’s office. Shrago and others say the bill is not crystal clear about whether cities must seek specific approval from their county supervisors, or whether counties can offer a blanket approval, which then allows cities to proceed.
Oakland City Councilman Dan Kalb has not yet reviewed the law’s details, but is interested in the possibility of pursuing an ordinance as early as next year, according to his staff.
Ting has said that the law will have a limited fiscal impact at the state level. The hit to local property taxes depends on the amount of land that becomes part of agriculture incentive zones. Urban agriculture experts do not believe that cities will see a significant decline in their tax rolls.
“This bill is a milestone for urban agriculture because it shows that the state recognizes that many California cities have an interest in this,” said Eli Zigas, a member of the San Francisco Urban Agricultural Alliance, which worked with Ting on the bill. “But we won’t see an explosion of urban gardens and farms, because the categories of land that qualify for the tax break is relatively limited. He noted that the land must be no more than three acres, entirely dedicated to agriculture and free of dwellings.
Liability is an issue that may give landowners pause. At a minimum, landlords are going to want their farmer/gardener tenants to have liability insurance, according to Nathan McClintock, an assistant professor at the Toulan School of Urban Studies & Planning at Portland State University.
As a UC Berkeley graduate student in 2009, McClintock surveyed Oakland to determine how many acres of undeveloped land could be used for vegetable production. He found that approximately 1,200 acres of Oakland’s, public land and 337 acres of private property could be used for growing produce. That land could yield up to 25 tons of vegetables annually and contribute up to 7.3 percent of Oakland’s vegetable consumption, he found.
McClintock said his research showed that owners are often passive about their property. Some don’t reside locally, or are not aware of alternative uses. Many don’t want to tie up their land for several years. For the tax incentive to work, its benefits must be clearly communicated to landowners, he said.
“This idea will work best with landowners who care about land stewardship and who are sympathetic to urban agriculture cause,” McClintock said.
Robert Selna is an attorney and government affairs consultant in Oakland and San Francisco