City establishes rules for urban farms

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The city of Pittsburgh has new regulations for the increasingly popular practice of urban agriculture, such as the raising of honeybees and chickens, but time will tell whether the rules are the bee's knees or something to squawk about.

Council approved the guidelines last week. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's office had proposed most of the changes to complement other greening initiatives -- and to make sure people and animals peacefully co-exist in city neighborhoods.

Cities across the nation have been adopting urban agriculture guidelines as residents -- citing food-security, health and health concerns -- become more interested in the practice.

"If you compare it to a wave in the ocean, I think it's been building and building and building," said Barb Kline, co-owner of Mildreds' Daughters Urban Farm, a 5-acre vegetable and flower operation in Stanton Heights.

Some farmers are unsettled at the prospect of new rules and costs. Others don't yet know how, or if, they'll be affected.

"We're going to operate the way we have and see how this thing kind of works out," said W. Moses Carper, who operates the Chiyou Corral horse farm in Observatory Hill.

The city planning department doesn't know how many residents are engaged in commercial agriculture but said the new application process should provide some data.

The new regulations don't affect residents growing vegetables for personal consumption, and commercial agricultural operations that already have occupancy permits will be grandfathered.

In the future, those going into commercial agriculture -- from beekeeping to vegetable production to poultry -- will have to apply for a permit and pay a fee of up to $275.

In some ways, the new rules are more relaxed than the old ones.

To operate a full-scale farm -- with some combination of bees, crops, poultry and livestock -- the owner's site must be at least 3 acres. The previous minimum was 5 acres. The planning department said the change "will open up new areas of the city for farming as a primary use."

Chicken coops and other farm-related structures must be at least 50 feet from a property line, down from a 200-foot distance requirement before.

"Roaming areas" must be free of waste and odors, and all feed, seed and fertilizer must be stored in rodent-proof containers inside an enclosed structure. Violators risk face citations from the city's Bureau of Building Inspection.

While city law previously was silent on the issue of beekeeping, the new guidelines specifically permit the practice. "That's a victory for beekeeping," said Joe Zgurzynski, president of Burgh Bees, a beekeepers' group that already operates a community apiary in Homewood.

Hives may be kept on the ground or rooftop, and the number of hives allowed depends on the size of the property. At least 2,000 square feet of space is required for two hives.

Come spring, the apiary will have about 20 hives, exceeding the square footage-to-hive limit in the regulations, apiary director Stephen Repasky said. He said Burgh Bees hopes the city will grant an exception.

The new requirements allow a community garden to sell its produce on site, provided operators go through the variance process, said Julie Butcher Pezzino, executive director of Grow Pittsburgh.

The group will seek a variance for its garden and farmstand in North Point Breeze. Previously, Ms. Pezzino said, city law was silent on whether the on-site sales of garden products were permitted.

In residential zones, sales of agricultural products will be permitted if agriculture is a property's main use. However, sales are not permitted on properties where agriculture would be an accessory use, a restriction that's designed to keep people from selling items out of their homes and that's consistent with existing restrictions on commercial activities in residential areas.

Joanna Doven, Mr. Ravenstahl's spokeswoman, said the urban agriculture changes complement the mayor's "Green Up Pittsburgh Program," which helps residents convert vacant lots into gardens, small parks and green space.

However, city council President Darlene Harris called the regulations confusing and, possibly, too burdensome.

Mrs. Harris said she's concerned that existing agricultural operations without occupancy permits will be forced to apply for variances and that the city will crack down on people who have a horse or a pig as a pet. She said she'll assess the regulations' impact in about a year and push for any changes she considers necessary.

Horses and pigs are not considered pets under the city code. Under the new rules, a person with under 3 acres must seek special permission to have either animal.

Councilman Bill Peduto pushed through a companion bill earmarking $30,000 to educate residents about the new requirements and help the economically disadvantaged pay for permits. However, Ms. Doven said the city is strapped for funds to demolish a backlog of dilapidated buildings in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods and shouldn't tap demolition funds "to pay for chicken coop permits."

"That's just ridiculous," she said.

Joe Smydo: or 412-263-1548. First Published February 8, 2011 5:00 AM


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