Council committee passes along bill that would prevent urban farming at Manatawna Farm

City council’s rules committee today voted in favor of a zoning bill designed to prohibit commercial farming and the expansion of community gardens at Manatawna Farm in Roxborough, going against the planning commission’s recommendation.

The 76-acre Manatawna Farm is managed by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department as part of Fairmount Park. About 50 acres are already being used for farming – hay is grown on 25 acres for animals kept by Saul High School agriculture students and 13 acres are used for pasture. There are also community gardens on site, managed by The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education.

The bill, which is now headed to full council for a vote, was introduced in June by Councilman Curtis Jones in response to a Parks and Rec proposal to take five acres out of hay production for the creation of 10 small-scale, organic urban farms, which would be operated by farmers found through an RFP process.

Proponents of the bill testified that losing five acres of hay production would negatively impact Saul, and the insertion of five acres of farmland into the middle of a grassy area that is surrounded by hundreds of protected acres outside the farm’s limits would harm migrating bob-o-links and other birds by fragmenting their habitat. And any associated fencing would hamper the movement of land animals who live at Manatawna, including eastern box turtles and bob cats.

The bill’s opponents said that the farm was capable of supporting the 10 small farms without hurting wildlife habitat, and that those farms would help the city meet its goals of bringing fresh, healthy foods to underserved residents while creating jobs.

The Philadelphia City Planning Commission voted against supporting the bill at its Tuesday meeting. Commissioners said they didn’t know what to make of the conflicting environmental positions, and were focusing on the land use issues.

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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