Wayne Whitman from MDARD has agreed to attend a private meeting in Muskegon to discuss the proposed ordinance in the context of the Right to Farm Act at 2:30 pm on December 8th, with city staff and invited guests only. The public will not be allowed to attend.
Joshua EldenBrady, resident of Muskegon, provides this overview:
Joshua S. EldenBrady
Remember the headlines from Oak Park a few years back threatening a resident with jail for growing a vegetable garden in her yard? “Oak Park Hates Veggies.” Thankfully that is not the trend. In recent years, cities across the state have been working to find a way to integrate urban farming as a new type of much need green space and cities across the country, some as large as San Francisco, are spending significant amount of money on tax credits to encourage property owners to keep some vacant lots as urban farms.
While legal hurdles exist, most cities have been working hard to encourage more green space and local food production. Detroit is a prime example of a large city struggling with how to work with state law to craft a well formed local food policy. Detroit spent several years carefully crafting an urban farming ordinance that welcomed local farms and gardens as a regulated use for many of the city’s numerous vacant properties.
It is this backdrop of progress that makes Muskegon Michigan stand in such sharp contrast. In 2010, a group of citizens pushed for the city to formally allow community gardens (previously illegal) in the city. This group worked with city staff to write a new ordinance. The ordinance allowed for any individual or group of individual to grow produce anywhere in the city so long as certain conditions were met. The version given to the work group encouraged those gardens to sell at the city farmers market. Somewhere between a stakeholder meeting and the final version, that language was removed.
At the start of 2013, one large non-profit operations (McLaughlin Grows Urban Farm) existed in Muskegon selling produce through CSA shares and through several local venues. During the year, one new operation (operated by individuals as sole proprietors) and one expanding operation (a community garden with new grant funding to sell door to door in a low income neighborhood) applied to the city for permits for new operations. Suddenly the city government that had encouraged sales at the work group in 2010 took a very different tone.
Since the language encouraging sales had been removed from the final version of the community gardening ordinance, the city said that no one was allowed to sell. The Zoning Board of Appeals stated that they could not allow a farming operation because it might spread to other areas of the city and farming in the city was “unacceptable.” The city management (staff and previous city manager) and legal counsel stated that the city would not even consider allowing urban farming of any kind because that was not the direction the city wanted to go and Right to Farm made it impossible. A similar sentient was echoed in 2014 by the Planning Commission as well as by several members of the City Commission.
The truly bizarre part is the nature of the opposition. Animals in urban farming have been a sticky issue for many cities and have held back progress. This issue should have been resolved in April 2014 when the state changed Generally Accepted Agricultural Management Practices to make it clear that local governments can allow farming while still excluding animals. But this isn’t even the issue in Muskegon where livestock was, in fact, allowed under the animal ordinance until it was outlawed (without discussion or any prior publication) in July of 2014. Rather the issue is a city whose staff views the growing of produce as a blight. A view shared by many on the Commission and the Planning Commission who have lamented that if they allow gardens to sell, then there might be more gardens and that would destroy residential neighborhoods.
That might be the end of the story, but faced with several powerful local non-profits (including that urban farm that is still selling CSA shares and is a project of the spouse of a member of the city commission), city staff are now willing to try and accommodate the non-profit gardens. As a result, two version of a new city ordinance for community gardens and urban farms were brought to the Planning Commission (one which allowed sales and one which allowed “donations in exchange for produce” only for non-profits). The Planning Commission refused to even vote to forward the issue to the City Commission hoping instead to kill the issue and prevent the blight of gardening from spreading.
The issue was brought back to the City Commission, which wanted input on the effect of Michigan’s Right to Farm Act from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. That would have been a positive step forward since the fear of Right To Farm was one of the impediments to the city moving forward. (The vice mayor insinuated that Right To Farm would have allowed crop dusters and bird shooting ranges anywhere in the city [ignoring the fact that neither operation could possibly comply with the GAAMPs given the city’s population density, FAA jurisdiction, and a specific state law allowing the city to prohibit the discharge of firearms making those two things impossible and, frankly, ludicrous]).
Unfortunately, while Wayne Whitman from MDARD was willing to talk to the city, he has refused to speak at an open meeting instead requiring a closed invite-only meeting. It is unclear why MDARD would refuse to inform a city government at a public meeting on a law that they are charged with administering, but it would certainly appear that they do not want to own their interpretation and be held accountable for it.
So as of today, Muskegon (which just four years ago was poised to allow urban farming of produce anywhere in the entire city) allows almost nothing. You can grow, but you had better be able to eat it or gift it all since you cannot sell it, not even at the brand new $4,000,000 city farmers market. Worse, this is not even something that most of the city government appears to want to change. Instead, much of the city government views growing plants as a blight, as something that they would do away with entirely if they could, and while they are willing to discuss changes with local non-profits behind closed doors it has been made clear that citizen gardens are not wanted and that growing food is only for the moneyed organizations (especially those with personal connections to the city commission) and not for the the citizens. It appears at least for now that Muskegon hates veggies too.
Note that an update to this post was published on December 29th, 2014.