REGION — Richard Winkler has witnessed how small gardens can breathe new life into neighborhoods across San Diego County. And he’s hopeful the recent passage of the California Urban Agriculture Zones Act will encourage the trend.
The bill gives landowners a property tax break, provided they dedicate three-acre lots or smaller to growing agriculture for at least five years. The idea is to convert run-down lots into vibrant farming hubs.
“If a property owner has idle land that has no imminent likelihood of development, (the bill) might be an incentive to do something with it,” said Winkler, who teaches residents how to plant organic gardens through the nonprofit San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project.
He added that county farmers are just waking up to the bill’s promise.
“A lot of people, and I myself need to learn more, don’t know what this means exactly for San Diego,” Winkler said. “People aren’t talking about it yet.”
The bill applies to urban areas, as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, with a population of more than 250,000.
At first blush, North County — with a mixture of rolling hills and homes that rarely measure over two stories — doesn’t appear to qualify for the “urban” act. But Tim McMonagle, geographer with the U.S. Census Bureau’s Los Angeles Office, clarified that much of the county is in fact eligible.
Most of North County is considered urban, because the city of San Diego is home to more than 1.3 million people, and “continuous development” juts up the coast, McMonagle stated.
While the region qualifies, the bill states that a county and cities within it have to opt into the legislation. But will eligible cities go for the program?
Encinitas Mayor Teresa Barth acknowledged that the bill might lead to the city collecting less in property taxes. However, that could be partially offset by the small farms generating sales tax revenue. Analyzing the act demands looking at more than just the “sheer bottom line,” though, she added.
New streams of locally grown produce would give residents greater access to healthy food. Also, the city would benefit from added food security in the event of a disaster, she said.
Barth noted that farms could potentially set up on some of the city’s grandfathered-in lots with old greenhouses on them, but it’s still too early to tell.
She added that she’d probably bring the act up during a city economic planning session slated for February.
“It’s just a starting point for discussion,” Barth said.
Assembly member Philip Y. Ting from San Francisco authored the bill, which passed at the beginning of October. His office has received calls from politicians expressing interest in introducing the bill in Los Angeles County, San Francisco, Sacramento and other areas, he said.
And in some areas, a loose coalition of farmers and hip restaurant owners are advocating for the bill, he said.
“Community farms have been transformational in San Francisco,” Ting said. “We want to catalyze them throughout the state.”
The bill has its roots in California’s historic Williamson Act, which gives tax breaks to landowners dedicating 100-acres or greater to open space or agriculture. Yet, few can meet the 100-acre requirement in most cities, inspiring the bill, Ting said.
Reduced property tax revenue as a result of the bill would mean a loss of below $1 million in school aid annually, according to the California Senate Appropriations Committee. A study wasn’t performed specifically to chart the bill’s economic impact on local governments.
A 2008 study from the American Real Estate and Urban Economics Association found that community farms increased the value of neighboring properties in New York City over the course of 20 years. But the researchers noted they’re cautious about generalizing the results in other areas given the density of New York City, adding that little research has been done on the topic in other cities.
Landowners who ink a deal to lease to a farmer for five years would benefit from a property assessment based on the per acre value of irrigated cropland in California. In 2012, this was $12,000 per acre, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.
The bill does have a noteworthy restriction: Dwellings aren’t allowed on properties aiming for a tax reduction. Ting said that’s designed to prohibit homeowners from seeking a tax break by growing produce in their backyard.
Agriculture is on the upswing in San Diego County.
According to the San Diego County Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures’ 2012 crop report, the number of acres of farmland rose for the first time in four years. The report notes that the county’s agriculture industry grew by 4 percent, reaching a worth of $1.75 billion.
The farm bureau also states that the county has more small farms (fewer than 10 acres) than anywhere else in the nation.
Organic farmer Scott Murray, who also teaches sustainable farming at San Diego City College, said the time is ripe for more mini-farms. Because the county is becoming denser, the farming of the future will take advantage of innovative growing techniques on smaller parcels of land, he said.
“The bill is a step in the right direction for encouraging my students and other young farmers,” Murray said.
He added that organic farmers sometimes operate on a short-term lease. The bill’s five-year lease provision would give farmers who are in for the long haul some peace of mind.
“They have to worry less about the property becoming too valuable and being sold,” Murray said.
This article was updated to clarify that the city of San Diego has 1.3 million people, not 3 million people as originally stated.
Also, a section of the article was updated at the request of Winkler. The article originally stated that Winkler believes the bill could prevent future development. However, he wished to clarify that it’s more likely the bill would give property owners an incentive to do something with idle land that’s not slated for imminent development.