The City governance committee has voted to establish a task force of community stakeholders to explore loosening the laws surrounding urban farms in San Antonio. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the San Antonio Food Bank was feeding about 60,000 families per week in South Texas. That number has doubled since the pandemic reached San Antonio in March. Lines of cars stretched down the freeway as people waited their turn to receive boxes of food.

At times, officials weren’t sure if they had enough.

Urban farms aim to address food insecurity issues by growing fresh options in densely populated areas. San Antonio has a couple of mid-sized urban farms, but a new task force could help this trend become more widespread.

At present, urban farms face regulatory barriers that have discouraged their growth in areas that could benefit from them the most: San Antonio’s food deserts exist in some of the poorest neighborhoods. These barriers also make it difficult for growers to sell their product on-site and keep the equipment necessary for tending crops on the premises.

“Currently small farms are overburdened with the same regulations as very different commercial developments like strip malls,” the Food Policy Council stated in an email to the San Antonio Report on Wednesday. “They include expensive re-platting, engineering, and impact fees that make it nearly impossible to launch. Once the code is adjusted for specific farm use cases, the city will be more sustainable, economically robust, and food secure than it is today.”

San Antonio City Council’s Governance Committee agreed Wednesday to establish a task force, comprised of community stakeholders, that will explore which laws could be changed to make urban farms easier to establish and expand.

That task force – and its recommendations – will have to balance those desires with the needs of neighborhoods and that of the City to ensure health and safety protocols are followed, said Assistant City Manager Rod Sanchez.

“There is a vast majority of things [urban farm advocates] want us to take a look at to further urban farms and a lot of that may make sense,” Sanchez said, “but there’s definitely a need to have a discussion with our neighborhoods because those are the [areas] that will be most impacted by these possible changes.”

Advocates have suggested that urban farms be allowed to sell produce on-site, store equipment on site, and host events while avoiding some expenses and permitting processes that are required for other commercial uses such as building sidewalks and temporary structures.

Urban farms, especially those that attract customers onsite, also could bring more traffic, drainage issues, and other elements into residential areas, said Michael Shannon, director of the City’s Development Services Department.

“All those impacts that we have [when] bringing commercial development inside neighborhoods really need to be discussed with a lot of people in the room,” Shannon said.

Those meetings could begin meeting as early as January if in-person gatherings are deemed safe by health officials, Sanchez said.

Stakeholders on the task force will include members of the Food Policy Council, neighborhood leaders, developers, and other interested individuals or groups, he said. He encouraged City Council to make suggestions.

“Time is of the essence [with] food security issues,” said Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6), who requested Council’s consideration of making these changes. “However … I do want to respect the process. Public engagement is especially important with this.”

Most of the changes suggested so far would require changing – or making exceptions in – the City’s unified development code (UDC), which regulates the built environment and includes zoning, planning, and design rules.

In San Antonio, the City undergoes an in-depth update to its UDC every five years. Changes often are minor, such as fixing typos and clarifying sentences, others are impactful and the result of years-long policy discussions. The last update in 2015 included some updates that allowed urban farms and community gardens to more easily establish. Advocates are pushing for more in the next round, which would have taken place this year but was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

While Sanchez anticipates the urban farm task force will kick off in January, work on other UDC changes – which can be suggested by anyone – will start later in the year. Ultimately, City Council will vote on all UDC updates.

In the meantime, Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) said she will take on other issues outside the UDC process as it relates to urban farms and community gardens in the Community Health and Equity Committee that she chairs.

“We are facing a lot of food insecurity, especially right now,” Sandoval said.

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@sareport.org