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Landowners spurn tax breaks to convert vacant lots to urban farms

Makadu Labeet in Vermont Square Community Garden, for which he's the "unofficial caretaker." Labeet says the garden is a "sacred ground" for him.
José Martinez/KPCC
Community gardens and small urban farms like this could become more common under an incentive offered by local governments. Here, Makadu Labeet is in Vermont Square Community Garden, for which he's the "unofficial caretaker." Labeet says the garden is a "sacred ground" for him.

A state law to give tax breaks to landowners who convert vacant lots to small urban farms has gone largely unused in the four years since it was passed. But now Long Beach, the latest city to offer the tax breaks, is adding a stick to the carrot of incentives.

Starting this month, Long Beach landowners who don’t convert their vacant parcels to small urban farms or community gardens will be billed a monthly fee to pay for city code enforcement officers to monitor the lots so they don’t turn into illegal dumping grounds or havens for crime.

The city will be charging owners a $53 dollar monthly fee to cover oversight of some 618 vacant lots, said Larry Rich, manager of Long Beach’s office of sustainability says.

“People will end up having to pay an additional fee to the city to have a vacant lot,” Rich said. They can avoid that fee if they do urban agriculture there instead.”

California’s largest cities and counties -- including Los Angeles County and the cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, San Diego and San Jose -- all passed ordinances to offer the tax breaks enabled by AB 551, which became law in 2013.

Parcels up to 3 acres on land zoned for industrial, commercial or multi-family residential use can get their property tax assessments dropped to the lower agricultural valuation in exchange for a commitment to convert to organic farming of produce or animal husbandry for five years. (Marijuana cultivation not included.)

In the four years since the law passed, owners of only four vacant properties have entered agreements to convert the land to small farms, said Eli Zigas, statewide food and agriculture director of SPUR, a nonprofit that advocates for more urban farming. He published a report on participation in February.

Since then, a few more parcels have applied for the tax breaks. In Los Angeles city, five proposals for urban farms are under review and awaiting approval. There are none so far in unincorporated Los Angeles County, however, the county’s adoption of the state law clears the way for cities within L.A. County to offer the incentive.

Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones are intended to create more green space, jobs and locally-grown food. Vacant lots that become community gardens and small farms are considered less of a magnet for illegal dumping and crime.

But there are several barriers to converting vacant lots to urban infill farms, said Tony Damico, co-director of Long Beach Fresh, a nonprofit that is working to line up farmers to propose working one parcel in the city.

One barrier to property owners taking the deal is that, for many, their property taxes are already very low because they have owned the land for so long, the savings would not be significant. Landowners also might not know about the incentive, or they might not have a means of connecting with a farmer interested in leasing the land, Damico said.

Some of the objections that neighborhoods are likely to raise in response to the prospect of a vacant lot becoming a community garden or farm – like a load of chicken or steer manure being dumped near a neighbor’s window – have already been worked out in recent years as Long Beach has grown its list of community gardens to 16 sites.

“It’s been fine," Rich said. "We don’t anticipate a lot of those issues.” The city has also worked out rules regarding livestock like goats, chickens and bees, setting per-parcel limits that would apply to any newly created urban farms, he said.