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Urban farmers collide with city rules

KANSAS CITY (AP)--Steve Mann doesn't look like an outlaw as he cheerfully harvests giant rutabagas and luscious lettuce bunches from a friend's garden in Kansas City, North.

But technically he is violating Kansas City ordinances as he prepares to sell the produce.

Brooke Salvaggio never dreamed that she and her husband, Dan Heryer, were running afoul of city codes when they used a few apprentices in their backyard garden business in south Kansas City.

These foot soldiers in the urban farming revolution have found that, along with locally grown food, they are cultivating a controversy.

While they try to capitalize on blossoming awareness about the benefits of turning lawns into fresh fruits and vegetables, they are colliding with city rules designed to protect Kansas City's cherished neighborhoods.

Those are rules that the city will be rethinking. But for now, Mann is not allowed to sell produce from a residential property he does not own.

And Salvaggio and Heryer are not allowed to use apprentices in their garden business, dubbed BadSeed Farm, because city codes prohibit outside employees at home occupations.

Urban farming is an issue confronting cities all over the country.

How can they regulate gardening as a home-based business? And how can they manage the chickens, goats and other livestock that enhance a farming operation but prompt complaints about noise and odor from nearby residents?

In this area, people are hoping the Kansas City Council will take the lead in balancing these competing interests.

"Because of Kansas City's desire to be a green city,'' City Planner Patty Noll said, "this council has directed us to make (urban agriculture) a priority.''

Not so fast, says Dona Boley, a neighborhood and historic preservation advocate. She grew up on a farm outside Paola, Kan., and says agriculture doesn't easily mix with many residential parts of town.

"We want to protect residential neighborhoods,'' she said.

In June, the Overland Park City Council denied a permit for four backyard hens despite testimonials about fresh eggs. St. Louis is looking at outlawing roosters. Wyandotte County is considering some livestock restrictions after complaints about horses.

Yet across the country, many communities are welcoming urban agriculture for its small-business potential, especially in economically deprived areas riddled with underused vacant properties.

"Cities are looking at it as much as an economic development issue as a hobby or recreation,'' said Alfonso Morales, a University of Wisconsin assistant professor of urban and regional planning who has studied local agricultural initiatives.

Among examples Morales cited: Cleveland and Boston allow urban agriculture districts within their city limits. Sacramento, Calif., has relaxed its rules about front-yard vegetable plantings.

Kansas City is not necessarily unfriendly to urban farmers. It has relatively liberal rules governing chickens and some other aspects of producing local food, noted Katherine Kelly, executive director of the Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture, which has helped about 50 area urban farms.

But as the movement gains momentum, Kelly said she thought Kansas City's code could be even more progressive and serve as a model for other cities.

Judging from the 100 people who packed a late October meeting at Salvaggio's and Heryer's BadSeed Farmer's Market, 1909 McGee St., the urban farming movement here has a lot of support. City Councilman John Sharp, whose district includes Salvaggio's backyard farm near Bannister and State Line roads, told the crowd that he thought Kansas City could tweak its rules on gardening businesses. He said the city would also look at modifying its restrictions on chickens and livestock, although he admitted that was likely to be more contentious.

"We don't want to generate constant traffic, but if we allow people to grow vegetables for more than their own use, there has to be some way for them to sell them,'' Sharp said in an interview.

"I think urban farming is an inevitable trend in the U.S. I think we can encourage more urban agriculture without destabilizing neighborhoods. In fact, if it's done right, this will enhance neighborhoods.''

In Kansas City, gardeners can have up to 15 chickens and even two goats--if they meet certain distance restrictions from structures.

But as Salvaggio and Heryer found out when someone this summer called animal control, three goats can get you in trouble. (The urban farmers say three goats are more content than two.)

An August public hearing about the goats prompted the city to review its rules--and provoked passionate views from opponents and supporters.

"My wife and I strongly object to the use of this property for multiple goats,'' witness Barry Seward testified. "And certainly, we have concerns about chickens and other wildlife or animals in the neighborhood.''

Supporters argued the 1-acre garden was a community asset and that the three goats were cleaner and better behaved than most dogs.

"It is a beautiful piece of property,'' witness Jane Carol said, adding that it was a better use of the land than just a lawn.

Salvaggio and Heryer lost their appeal and sent the goats to a rural farm in Kansas. They subsequently learned about the rules prohibiting apprentices and barring customers from picking up their produce on-site. They are complying with those rules but are not sure they can run a successful farm under such constraints next spring.

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