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Unused county property in Pasco could soon sprout community gardens

NEW PORT RICHEY — Unused property in Pasco County may soon sprout community gardens that beautify neighborhoods and promote healthier lifestyles among residents, thanks to an ordinance passed unanimously Tuesday by the County Commission.

The measure allows the public to build community gardens and farms on county-owned property, and also provides design, operations and maintenance standards for them.

The ordinance was written with urban west Pasco in mind, said Travis Morehead, chairman of the Pasco Food Policy Advisory Council, which helped draft the ordinance. Community gardens reduce crime because they keep people busy, he explained, and have also been known to increase property values.

"People are getting more and more excited about these kinds of things," Morehead said, citing downtown New Port Richey's so-called Garden District as an example. "It's attracting people from other areas."

The ordinance has roots in the 2013 Harbors West Market Redevelopment Plan, which identified urban agriculture as a way to encourage environmental stewardship, economic prosperity and social responsibility.

Beyond making Pasco more pleasing to the eye, community gardens could mean greater access to fresh fruit and veggies in the county's poorest neighborhoods. And they bring residents together to take advantage of the county's land resources in a positive, productive way, said Whitney Elmore, director of the Pasco County Extension Office and member of the Food Policy Advisory Council.

About 14 percent of Pasco residents are considered food insecure, meaning they lack reliable access to affordable, nutritious food, according to a recent study by the advisory council. Community gardens could help fill that void while cutting grocery costs for families, Elmore said.

There are environmental benefits, too. When crops are grown and shared locally, less fuel is used to ship them from faraway locales like California, food advocates say. The National Resources Defense Council estimates that a typical American meal includes ingredients from at least five countries outside the United States.

Zephyrhills, New Port Richey and Dade City all have urban agricultural ordinances that allow residents to build community gardens on city-owned land. New Port Richey already has two such gardens, including the Grand garden project on Grand Boulevard and Habitat for Humanity's Kinship Urban Farm. Dade City is planning one garden on private property and another in Watson Park.

The new ordinance adds to the sheer amount of space in Pasco available for such initiatives. And there are dozens of empty, county-owned lots in Pasco that would make ideal sites for gardens, Elmore said.

"But it's up to residents and community groups to use this ordinance as an impetus to join together and make it happen," she added.