Tampa Bay Times: Urban agriculture takes root around Tampa Bay, but rules haven’t kept up

Article Posted on September 7, 2018

By: Richard Danielson, Tampa Bay Times

Urban agriculture, by definition, tends to be a small-scale enterprise, but the Tampa Bay area has a vanguard of city-based farmers, with more expected.

Their plots range from nonprofit community gardens tended by volunteers to a field of greens and root vegetables growing a block from Lowe’s to an indoor hydroponic operation with six-figure start-up costs.

Trouble is, local rules — can you grow food in a commercial district? can you sell your produce where you grow it? — haven’t kept up.

When Shannon O’Malley and Brad Doyle wanted to start Brick Street Farms, a hydroponic business where every five weeks they harvest a 10-acre crop of herbs and leafy greens grown inside four shipping containers, they couldn’t go to a commercially zoned property in St. Petersburg. So they had to find a site zoned industrial, then get the city to approve a special exception for it.

"The reason why we had these challenges is because there is no current definition of agriculture for the city of St. Petersburg," O’Malley told a group of planners, community development officials, gardeners, urban farmers and others this week at the Florida Botanical Gardens in Largo.

Planners in St. Petersburg and Pinellas County want to make sure land development rules create opportunities for urban agriculture. The benefits are many, they say: from increased social interaction and community building to promoting healthier diets and reducing food deserts.

Robyn Keefe, an urban planner for the city of St. Petersburg, compares urban agriculture to Windex — specifically, the way it was used as a cure-all by the father of the bride in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

"If you want to create green infrastructure in your community, spray a little urban agriculture on it," she said. "If you want to create a healthy community, spray a little urban agriculture on it."

It’s not just about growing nice things, but creating local alternatives to industrial-scale agriculture, with its long-distance transportation energy consumption. One analogy is that urban agriculture is to factory farms what solar panels are to coal-fired power plants.

"We’re looking at de-centralizing that and bringing production to the point of consumption, whether it be through community gardens or indoor agriculture," O’Malley said.

So St. Petersburg officials have been working on a proposed comprehensive update to the city zoning code to expand opportunities for on-site sales of produce and innovative forms of urban agriculture. The goals are both broad (to make St. Petersburg the culinary capital of the Southeast) and specific (to have a community garden with a quarter-mile of any resident).

For now, however, the write-through of the code is on hold. That’s because Florida’s Right to Farm Act prohibits local governments from regulating farming.

Meanwhile, some developers are looking at incorporating urban agriculture into their projects as an amenity to attract millennials and other prized tenants and customers.

At Water Street Tampa — the $3 billion Jeff Vinik-Cascade Investment redevelopment project near Amalie Arena — executives in 2016 discussed the idea of devoting a sizable part of a parking garage roof to urban agriculture. (Having space for recreation, bars, dog parks and landscaping is a main reason Water Street Tampa is building a central cooling plant for the whole district, rather than putting air-conditioners atop every building.)

Nothing has been announced since then, but developers discussed the idea of having 18,000 square feet of planting beds, maybe with professional gardeners farming part of the space and part of it being a community garden. They also have talked about the idea of hosting weekend farmers markets as part of the programming for the parks in their district.

That goes to another key point made this week during a discussion at the Botanical Gardens sponsored by the Suncoast section of the American Planning Association and organized by Forward Pinellas, the county’s land use and transportation planning agency. Urban agriculture, participants said, is not merely about growing, but is more of a system whose parts include:

• Composting. Florida soil is poorly suited for farming on its own. In Pinellas, solid waste officials are working on a master plan targeted for mid-2019 to explore the feasibility and market potential of large-scale composting of food waste, which decreases the efficiency of the county’s electricity-generating incinerator because it’s so moist.

• Sales. Current Pinellas land use and zoning regulations prohibit on-site sales in some locations, especially residential neighborhoods, but county officials are looking at the idea of allowing on-site sales as an option allowed at the discretion of local governments…

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