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  1. Opinion

Column: This residential vegetable gardening bill is rotten

CHRIS URSO | Times (2017) Jim Kovaleski, a self proclaimed urban farmer in New Port Richey, grows produce in his front yard along Virginia Avenue. New Port Richey already has an urban agriculture ordinance in place.
Published Jun. 4

In its rush to preempt home rule on residential vegetable gardening, the Florida Legislature has dealt a setback to communities committed to sustainable urban agriculture. Under the guise of protecting the right of property owners to grow their own vegetables, recently passed SB 82 prevents municipalities and counties from enacting ordinances and other polices regulating food production in urban environments.

While the legislation now awaiting the governor's signature appears positive or even simple, it is neither. Its unintended consequences are actually quite harmful.

Critically important to understanding the way this legislation damages urban agriculture initiatives is its prohibition on local governments regulating "vegetable gardens on residential properties." The problem is with the residential properties language. Since urban agriculture typically occurs on properties zoned residential, it gives anyone the opportunity to grow vegetables on any residential property. The language is not just giving permission to private homeowners growing vegetables on their front lawn; it is giving state sanction to growing vegetables on any residential property using any production method a grower desires - including a market garden on a vacant lot, a community garden with a dozen stakeholders and an industrial-style high-yield vegetable production system.

Home rule and local food sovereignty are trampled. This is the fundamental problem with the legislation, which spawns two harmful consequences.

First, by asserting state control over local agriculture policy in urban areas, it eliminates any possibility of communities taking constructive action to promote and develop sustainable and resilient urban agricultural policies that will enhance not only local food systems but also the natural ecologies on which such systems depend. The legislation cuts short growing interest across the state in enacting urban food-production ordinances that are predicated on both an awareness of local ecosystems and an interest in healthy and sustainable food production.

Second, and more harmful, the legislation renders "void and unenforceable" existing urban agricultural ordinances, such as those in Fort Lauderdale, Winter Garden, Pasco County, Gainesville and New Port Richey. These ordinances are professionally crafted to encourage rather than prohibit urban food production — they are permissive, not restrictive. Review of the ordinances reveals consummate attention to ecological concerns as well as issues related to food production in residential areas. In their contents, you will find attention given to water management, rain-water capture, restrictions on chemicals and pesticides, and use of low-impact tools and machinery. The state legislation is silent on all of these topics. It simply prohibits local governments from regulating vegetable gardens on residential properties.

The end result is that all existing pro-active ordinances will be void and all those being envisioned will be shelved. Lost are opportunities to limit the use (and overuse) of poisons, fungicides, herbicides, and ecologically damaging farming practices in residential areas. Lost too are benefits such as water retention, composting, soil enrichment, and organic growing practices. Notably, where these ordinances have been established there is a ripple effect: local governments implement educational programs for persons wanting to grow their own food, instructional materials are generated and distributed, county extension offices get involved, grass root organizations are formed, community gardens are organized and local farmers' markets are established.

The Florida League of Cities is correct in identifying this as yet another case of the state limiting home rule, but it is more than that. In this instance, it is also an infringement of a more basic principle — food sovereignty. By establishing vague and permissive legislation permitting food production by any method desired by the grower, the state prevents local action to improve local food systems and the environment on which they depend. While this may not be a concern of the Legislature, it has particular significance to those communities that desire healthy local food, are committed to establishing sustainable local systems to produce this food and who consider it their right to safeguard these systems through local action. SB 82 violates this right, and with it the principle of food sovereignty.

Dell deChant is a master instructor and associate chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of South Florida. He is chair of the Environmental Committee of the City of New Port Richey, a founding member of Food Policy Council of Pasco Country and a member of the board of directors of Florida Food Policy Council.

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