Renewable Republic's urban farm. Photo by Stephanie Patillo.
Renewable Republic's urban farm. Photo by Stephanie Patillo.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Jan. 3, but it’s continuing popularity led us to bring it back “above the fold” for the weekend. Enjoy and please share. We will be publishing more stories on urban farming by contributing writer Mitch Hagney in the coming weeks and months.

City Council approved amendments to the City’s Unified Development Code in December that will, among other things, help the city’s urban gardeners and farmers. From 2016 onward, gardeners can grow food in most lots and sell produce right at their garden or farm.

Before December, urban gardeners operated in a legal gray zone in terms of where they were permitted to grow and sell produce. Many growers were uncertain about whether they could use spaces like alley-ways, restaurants, or rooftops in addition to backyards. Now, the city’s zoning matrix has a “residential market garden” as a permitted use by default for every zone.

Besides “residential market gardens,” the City created another use category called “urban farms.” These are for operations where the farmer doesn’t live on site and where enough crops are grown that they are sold in bulk off of the property. Urban farms are now permitted by default throughout the city except in locations zoned for single-family residential. In those areas, farmers will have to apply for a special use permit.

For LocalSprout, my company that grows produce throughout the city, largely within shipping containers inside a warehouse, we had no certainty about the legal status of most of our operations because the laws on the books did not account for hydroponic businesses. The certainty that comes with a formal use definition means a lot. The certainty that City policymakers are prioritizing urban agriculture means even more.

Guaranteeing the legality of urban gardens and farms signals tangible support to the small-but-growing community of urban farmers already in San Antonio. There are likely thousands of food gardens within the city limits, though most are on private residential property. There are nearly 100 community gardens, and there are already a handful of urban farms.

The Food Policy Council of San Antonio wrote and submitted the UDC amendments to City Council, led by Vice President Leslie Provence in coordination with full-time gardeners, farmers, and city officials like Michelle Gorham of Green Space Alliance, David Clear of Metro Health, Tony Felts of Development Services, and myself.

“Our opening bid was to have everything legal in every district, but late in the process city staff came back with some restrictions for urban farms on single-family residential areas,” Provence said. “Since these proposals are very vulnerable to complete rejections based on small problems, we agreed to the changes. Still, we’re very happy with the results and we’re grateful for our allies within the city that helped us get the amendments through.”

The only restrictions on home gardens are now from independent home owners associations. Since HOAs get their authority through the state government, the City can’t change their ability to restrict crops and livestock. Instead, the bylaws of HOAs have to be changed by residents within the association. Residents can find contact information for their home owners association here.

Hydroponic basil at LocalSprout's Food Bank greenhouse. Photo by Laurel Smyth.
Hydroponic basil at LocalSprout’s Food Bank greenhouse. Photo by Laurel Smyth.

For anyone curious about livestock rearing, San Antonio already permits up to three fowl and two cows, pigs, horses, sheep, goats, or llamas per household.

San Antonio’s new farming rules will allow it to avoid problems that have plagued other cities in navigating their unusual urban land uses. For example, Santa Fe struggled with uncertainty over whether one farm was permitted in a residential area, and the tension escalated to a city-wide disagreement between neighborhood residents and the growers such that the city council had to legislate reactively.

Sacramento experienced the opposite problem. After a concerted effort to clearly establish guidelines through an urban agriculture ordinance, the extended debate ended up creating relatively stringent restrictions and even after a second ordinance intended to roll back the limitations, farms are still limited by acreage and produce can only be sold on certain days of the week on site unless the property’s “primary use” is agriculture.

San Antonio’s latest move doesn’t create any particular restrictions on farms but does clearly establish farm’s legal status with only the single-family home exception. Still, the subject of that exception has caused some grief even as close as Austin.

A Bearded Lady chicken at HausBar Urban Farm in Austin. Photo Courtesy.
A Bearded Lady chicken at HausBar Urban Farm in Austin. Photo Courtesy.

HausBar Farms in Austin is located in a single-family residential district, and a disagreement stemming from an unpleasant odor by some neighbors led the city to shut down farm operations. After investigating, the city found a couple other code violations like too many structures on the property, and while the farm eventually reopened after the city passed a new agriculture ordinance and the farm met all the bureaucratic standards, it was a contentious time for the city that again pitted residents against growers.

San Antonio may experience similar challenges as more urban farms pop up in residential areas and they apply for special use permits. During Council’s session, when San Antonio’s new zoning rules were established, Councilman Alan Warrick (D2) proposed a change that permitted urban farms throughout the city, even in residential neighborhoods and especially vacant lots to alleviate some of the tension.

“We wanted to make it easy as possible for vacant lots in residential areas (especially District 2) be utilized for urban agriculture,” said Warrick’s Chief of Staff Derek Roberts. “The cost to rezone runs about $700 and can be time-consuming.”

Warrick’s proposal was defeated 6-3.

“It seemed like a good idea from what I heard, but the other council members didn’t get time to consider the changes proposed,” said Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8), who cast a no vote. “It sets a bad precedent to make a change in UDC like that without vetting because it impacts planning and development so much. I would be supportive of bringing it back up for passage post-haste.”

Regardless, even with the restriction the new development code signals real progress. Along with new locations to grow, the city is steadily increasing the amount of locations that farmers can sell their produce. Wholesalers like Farm to Table and Truckin’ Tomato already buy in bulk from farms like the San Antonio Food Bank and LocalSprout, and would happily purchase produce from new urban farms as they crop up.

Farm Assistant Stephanie Patillo (left) harvests carrots at the San Antonio Food Bank farm with Farm Manager Mike Persyn. Photo by Mitch Hagney.
Farm Assistant Stephanie Patillo (left) harvests carrots at the San Antonio Food Bank farm with Farm Manager Mike Persyn. Photo by Mitch Hagney.

Certain restaurants like PharmTable, Restaurant Gwendolyn, O’liva, The Clean Plate, Sweet Yams, and The Cove have built their reputation for years on buying from local farmers and have tapped into real consumer demand. Other restaurants buy locally more unexpectedly. Esquire Tavern, Hot Joy, Urth Juice Bar, CitrusBoiler House, and Lüke are just some of the places around the city that slip farm fresh produce into their menus quietly without building their restaurant’s brand around the concept. Urban farmers of the future will find all sorts of plates to fill with their produce.

The city’s clear sign of support in siting urban agriculture could even help tempt national urban farming companies considering the city as their next location. Companies like BrightFarms, Gotham Greens, FarmedHere have each built farms in multiple cities and San Antonio is being considered for their next developments. These are not cute little operations that produce a couple heads of broccoli as they teach students how to compost. Rather, urban farms of this magnitude net millions of dollars annually by producing huge amounts of leafy greens, herbs, and tomatoes year-round.

*Top image: Renewable Republic’s urban farm. Photo by Stephanie Patillo.

Related Stories:

Battleground to Breaking Ground: When Veterans Become Farmers

Urban Ag Census: Where Food is Grown in the City

Texas Organic Farms, Once Torpedoed, Coming Back

SA Housing Authority Announces Eastside Urban Farm

Mitch Hagney is a writer and hydroponic farmer in downtown San Antonio. Hagney is CEO of LocalSprout and president of the Food Policy Council of San Antonio.