BY LINDSAY MYERS — Access to fresh, locally grown food may just get a little easier for residents in this county. The Prince George’s County Planning Department is currently rewriting over 1,200 pages of zoning ordinances and subdivision regulations that govern the way certain geographical areas in the county are used. One of the biggest proposed changes affects the way urban agriculture is defined and zoned. The county has proposed separating urban agriculture ventures into two distinct categories: urban farms and community gardens. Under the new regulations, both ventures would be “permitted by-right” in nearly all zones, meaning groups interested in establishing either a community garden or urban farm will not need special permission from the county to start the process.

Community gardens are defined as “privately or publicly owned land devoted to the cultivation of fruits, flowers, vegetables, or ornamental plants by more than one person, household, family, or non-profit organization for personal or group use, consumption, or donation,” according to the Comprehensive Legislative Draft released by the county. Produce from community gardens cannot be sold for profit and primarily serves small-group nutritional and social needs. Some areas in the county have had major success with establishing community gardens. The Hyatt Park Community Garden at the corner of 36th Avenue and Hamilton Street boasts an extensive waitlist for its 35 plots, each of which is 15 square feet. The county’s District Council hopes the zoning changes will encourage new groups to establish more gardens, ultimately relieving some of the demand for growing space.

The proposed changes also permit by-right urban farms in all zones except Transit-Oriented zones, which are primarily reserved for the 15 Metrorail stations located in Prince George’s County. Urban farms can be operated either for profit or as not-for-profit agricultural enterprises. They are used for the cultivation of fruits, vegetables or flowers, as well as composting, beekeeping and agricultural education. Under the current regulations, urban farms are forbidden in mixed-use, commercial and industrial zones. These geographical limitations not only prevent urban farms from taking advantage of vacant space in the county, but they also inhibit easy access to fresh, local produce for large groups of residents.

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ECO City Farms lobbied for zoning access to residential areas in 2013. Photo courtesy of ECO City Farms

In 2013, ECO City Farms, a not-for-profit, multicultural, inter-generational, Certified Naturally Grown urban teaching farm in the county lobbied for zoning access to residential areas. District councilmembers approved an amendment in October of that year, which allowed ECO City to open its Bladensburg farmsite. 

Urban farms often sell their produce at local farmers markets, or through Community Supported Agriculture programs, also known as CSAs, that deliver a fixed amount of fresh produce every week to members who defray growing costs by prepaying for an entire season. Some urban farms also sell through pop-up produce stalls in areas that lack established farmers markets or easy access to grocery stores. The proposed regulation changes would make it easier for urban farms to establish these pop-up stalls, ultimately providing residents of the county with more buying options.

District 2 County Councilmember Deni Taveras says she is “really excited that we are moving in this direction.” She cited the prevalence of pop-up stalls throughout her district, especially around Chillum, Langley Park and Adelphi, and the need to support more agricultural endeavors in general. “We don’t necessarily have any ‘food deserts’ here in District 2, but there are areas that could very well benefit from having more farmers markets, like Bladensburg. Regardless, we are definitely trying to expand our choices for residents. I want to be able to provide these kinds of [agricultural] services nearby,” said Taveras.

Often, agricultural initiatives like pop-up stalls, markets and urban farms come from the ground up. Taveras cited recent interactions with a local community member who is working to establish a farmers market potentially near the Kmart on Riggs Road. “If we could get a market there up and running, I think that would really bring the community together,” she said.

Concerned parents from local chapters of the National Parent Teacher Association have also worked with state organizations like Chispa, the Latino lobbying arm of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, to set up community gardens at Prince George’s County public schools. Other organizations like, REAL School Gardens, specifically search for low-income schools at which to build “outdoor classrooms” for students who don’t have regular access to green space. In 2016, Mary Harris ‘Mother’ Jones Elementary in Adelphi became one of the most recent recipients of one of these outdoor classrooms.

Taveras said the proposed zoning changes are largely the result of a shift in the way county residents have begun to think about agriculture. “We still have to make a few tweaks to address some concerns. We’ve gotten complaints over time about corn stalks in front of people’s homes, things like that,” said Taveras, “but at the same time, I think the whole movement toward urban farms has become so much more appealing over time that it’s become easier for people to, well, digest, so to speak.”

The legislative draft of the proposed changes is currently under county review and revision. The District Council will likely vote on the document in March 2018, just in time for the spring growing season.