By Erika D. Smith
Jul 23, 2014
For the past 20 years, Kay Grimm has spent her days toiling on the Near Eastside, turning five empty lots in the shadow of the Indianapolis Re-entry Education Facility into a permaculture garden filled with exotic fruit, vegetables and livestock.
For 10 of those 20 years, Sue Spicer has helped her, tending to beehives and sheep that mow — translation, eat — the grass of another lot they own across the street.
To Kay and Sue and other gardeners, Fruit Loop Acres is a beautiful labor of love that should be allowed to grow. To others, it's an ugly mess, a tangle of untamed greenery interspersed with smelly animals, that should be shut down.
Who is right? It's hard to say, and the city's laws are largely silent.
Indianapolis hasn't updated its zoning code since the 1970s, but in that time, a cottage industry of urban homesteading has taken root. Agriculture is no longer just about large farms in rural areas. People own goats in Broad Ripple. They have chicken coops in their backyards in Downtown. Residents in the core of the city are finding safe ways to plant fruit trees and grow vegetables on contaminated lots.
It's a good trend, a healthy trend. One that can go a long way toward addressing the shortage of fresh produce in urban food deserts. And one that Mayor Greg Ballard's administration has been right to encourage by donating empty lots to neighborhood groups and nonprofits interested in starting community gardens.
But regulating urban homesteading is another matter entirely.
The plan is to wait until the city finishes overhauling its zoning code — a process that could take until next year. There will, for the first time, be a section covering "urban agriculture."
The problem is people have been making up their own rules for a long time, relying on parts of the zoning code that seem applicable and filling in the blanks when there's no guidance.
The results have been uneven.
The city, for example, cited Grimm and Spicer for having high weeds and grass on one of their lots while one sheep was grazing on it.
"We didn't argue," Spicer said of the citation. "We just mowed."
Weeks later, a neighbor reported the permaculture garden for high weeds and grass. After a lengthy inspection, city officials decided it was up to code.
That is one clash of many. Others are over the proposed zoning language itself. On Wednesday, homesteaders took city officials to task at two public meetings at the Indiana State Fairgrounds.
On the livestock restrictions, they balked at rules that set a specific ratio of chickens to roosters, as well as limit the size and number of animals that residents can own. They wanted to know if goats and chickens could be grandfathered in if they owned more than the required number. And they talked about the potential for disease if they could no longer rotate male and female animals in and out of their livestock population.
On the urban gardening side, they complained about restrictions on when and how people can sell produce to neighbors.
What came through most is that the urban homesteaders know what it takes to be successful at urban agriculture in Indianapolis, and city officials need to listen them and make changes before moving forward with the new code.
What's most important is that we don't deter people from being homesteaders.
At a time when people in the urban core regularly steal food from gardens and eggs from chicken coops because they don't have enough to eat, we need to encourage people to come up with creative solutions to our food-desert crisis. We need more upstart farmer's markets and more residents working together to solve the problems of their neighborhoods.
Zoning is a tricky thing, but we must strive for a balance. And if we can't quite achieve that, we should err on the side of the code being too loose rather than too restrictive.