William Kramer, director of the commission's development planning division, summed up the position for the rules committee yesterday. The farm is currently zoned residential – farming is not allowed. The farming activity already going on is essentially grandfathered in. Parks and Rec could not add commercial farms without getting a variance, Kramer said, so an overlay prohibiting an already prohibited activity is redundant.
If the proposed overlay becomes law, Parks and Rec would also need zoning relief, Kramer said – both from the overlay and the underlying ordinance.
“If you need a variance to do it either way, what's the difference?” asked councilman Jim Kenney, committee chairman.
Councilman and committee member Bill Greenlee agreed. “Either way, you have to go to the zoning board, so where's the beef?” Greenlee asked, clearly pleased with his farm pun. Redundancy is a way of reinforcing the current stipulations, he said.
Jones, the bill's sponsor, said urban farming could happen in many other locations where wildlife habitat would not be impacted and that are located within neighborhoods that lack access to fresh foods.
“Make no mistake, I am for urban farming,” Jones told the committee. “But not at Manatawna.”
Two people in addition to Kramer spoke against the bill at the hearing, while about half a dozen spoke for it.
Mark Focht, executive director of Fairmount Park, spoke for the Department of Parks and Recreation. He warned that supporting the bill could have “city-wide implications across the park and recreation system.”
“Manatawna has been a working farm for decades,” he told the committee. The small-scale urban farms proposed would foster “sustainable, urban agricultural business in Philadelphia and (enhance) the direct, locally grown market of produce for the citizens of Philadelphia,” he said. The bill “would forever prohibit this use. It would also potentially set a harmful city-wide precedent for how park and recreation land is used.”
Jones said he couldn't understand the focus on this one spot for urban farming. “It's amazing to me that the only place in the city of Philadelphia that can grow a vegetable is Manatawna Farm,” he said.
Focht said that Manatawna is the best place for that in the Fairmount Park system. Among the biggest challenges for urban farmers is to find “high quality agricultural land which will not change in ownership or use.” Parks and Rec consulted with experts including the Institute for Innovations in Local Farming, National Sustainable Agricultre Information Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Lands Trust and their consultant, Sustainable Planning. “All agree that Manatawna Farm presents the best opportunity within our system to advance this urban farming goal,” he said. “It has sufficient land and offers great opportunities to partner with the School District of Philadelphia to engage Saul High School students in learning about small-scale, environmentally appropriate urban agriculture.
Focht said that there is significant interest from urban farmers in the land. When a request for information was put out by Parks and Rec this past spring, ideas that came back including growing vegetables, cut flowers, and plants for organic dyes. Some proposals came from non-profit organizations that provide fresh food to communities in North and West Philadelphia. Others planned to sell what they grew to farmers markets and restaurants.
Focht said that his department is very concerned about wildlife habitat, and has increased areas of grassland throughout the system, including assisting the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education with a grant to improve six acres of meadow across a drive from the farm plots and 350 additional acres near Manatawna.
Kenney told those who were going to speak in support of the bill to keep things brief, since his feeling was that the committee “is on your side.”
Saul senior and current President of the Student Government of the School District of Philadelphia Emilio Garcia was among those who spoke.
Garcia, who is also a member of Future Farmers of America, said that the hay produced at Manatawna is central to his school's Farm to Table program. “All the livestock depend on Manatawna's hay,” he said. “Any development on it or reduction of the hayfield would force the school to purchase hay elsewhere, and the school can't afford it, so our programs will suffer.”
Through his school's Even Greener program, the farmer doesn't mow hay when migratory birds “are visiting or nesting,” he said.
If city council adopts the bill, all commercial uses would be prohibited at the farm.
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