Diane Williams and a few of her neighbors in her Fruitvale neighborhood decided they had to do something about at an empty lot that had become a popular site for illegal dumping. In the spring of 2010, they hacked down the weeds that had grown to be five feet tall and cleared the trash that had accumulated on the blighted lot. They then planted twelve fruit trees and some crops. Today, Williams describes the former eyesore as a place in which community members can gather and enjoy the numerous benefits from a thriving urban garden in their neighborhood.
But if Williams had contacted Oakland’s Planning Department to inquire about the legality of what she and her neighbors were doing — that is to say, growing food on abandoned private property that they did not own — before last week, city staffers likely would have told them that they were required to apply for a conditional use permit, which would have cost nearly $3,000 and would have taken up to twelve months to be issued. However, it turns out that city staffers have been misinforming citizens. According to Planning Department Director Rachel Flynn, growing food on most vacant properties in Oakland has been legal — and is not dependent on getting an expensive permit — since 2011, when the Planning Department last updated city code regarding community gardening.
Yet despite this fact, city staffers have been telling residents and elected officials the exact opposite for the past three years. Indeed, proponents of urban agriculture, including City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, petitioned the Planning Commission at its June 4 meeting to reevaluate the city’s policy, because they had been under the mistaken impression that growing an urban garden on any vacant lot required an expensive permit. At that meeting, Zoning Manager Scott Miller then reinforced this misperception when he said, in response to a question from a fellow commissioner about whether crop raising is allowed on vacant lots (as long as the produce isn’t for sale), “No, not under today’s code. Not without a conditional use permit [CUP]. The current interpretation is that you need a CUP to do crop raising as a stand alone principal use.” He then added: “It is a significant fee, no doubt about it.”
In an interview after the meeting, Flynn said she did not know why staffers have been telling citizens that a conditional use permit was required. “There has been some confusion; I’m not quite sure why,” she said. “We’ve notified all of the planners to make sure everyone is aware of the same information.”
Esperanza Pallana, director of the Oakland Food Policy Council (which organized the petition), noted that the council has been actively attempting to work with the city to reduce barriers to growing food — including advocating for the removal of the conditional use permit requirement — for the past three years, without much success. In the summer and fall of 2011, the Planning Department held a series of community meetings — one of which was attended by more than three hundred people — about updating and overhauling the city’s antiquated rules regarding urban agriculture and backyard livestock. It has yet to complete that overhaul, however. At the June 4 meeting, Flynn said the department would start to develop the overhaul by September.
This article originally appeared in the East Bay Express on June 25, 2014. View it here.