Due to the growing popularity of urban farms and the opportunities and complications they can bring to a city, Oakland's planning officials are about to update their zoning codes from the dark ages of the mid 20th-century.
Which is a very good thing, because under the current archaic codes, you can't even give away your produce without a $2,500 licensing fee! I'm sure this is something that is rarely -- if ever -- enforced, but yes, it means that technically, if you were to give your neighbor an apple or some honey from your farm, you'd be in violation of the city's codes. Pretty crazy stuff.
Can there be a bigger disincentive to do things the right way than to keep this sort of financial barrier in people's way?
But you didn't come here to read about apples. Because really, it's hard to take somebody seriously who wigs out about being given an apple from a tree planted on private property. It's when neighbors start hearing stuff like this outside their windows at 5AM that the complaints usually start rolling in:
And rightfully so. It's pretty much only weirdos like me who actually enjoy hearing this sort of thing before the sun comes up -- most people consider it grounds for justifiable homicide.
It's not just the inconsiderate or irresponsible people who garner complaints, though. Even the conscientious urban farmer who strives to set a positive example can be the target of a harassment campaign. Take the case of Novella Carpenter, who raised hackles by using her rabbits for meat:
Carpenter's troubles began when rabbit rescue activists, upset that she was killing bunnies for meat, complained to animal control officers. The complaint was sent to the city zoning department, which cracked down on her for not having a permit.
Angstadt said that part of the motivation for having clearer rules about raising crops and animals is to get the city out of political debates that have little to do with zoning, such as what happened with Carpenter's farm.
"We, the city, are being used as a blunt tool, a hammer, in another debate - whether or not rabbits are food," Angstadt said.
Yikes! And apparently in this case, neighbors weren't complaining at all: Carpenter's farm was considered something to aspire to (hey, she even wrote a book on the subject). In fact, nobody bothered enforcing the rules until it started hurting people's sensibilities (something that can happen when you're dealing with animals that straddle the line between "companion" and "food).
Permits as bludgeons, indeed!
If handled responsibly, this type of farming is something that, at the very least, simultaneously fosters independence and a sense of community, and a kind of healthy respect for the animals and land we use that only hands-on experience can garner. People who are doing it well should be encouraged, rather than bureaucratically assaulted.
On the flip side, efforts need to be made to discourage those who just want to throw a few chickens on their property without any care or forethought because it's the chic thing to do; there are genuine issues regarding health and noise that need to be addressed.
It's really going to be fascinating watching this unfold. Cities need to update their codes in order to intelligently and fairly address the issues that come along with urban agriculture -- will Oakland manage to do it right?