Making an Urban Agriculture Small Business Sector Feasible in San Francisco: A "Williamson Act" for California's Cities

By Reed, Nicholas | Stanford Law & Policy Review, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Making an Urban Agriculture Small Business Sector Feasible in San Francisco: A "Williamson Act" for California's Cities


Reed, Nicholas, Stanford Law & Policy Review


TABLE OF CONTENTS  INTRODUCTION I.   THE BENEFITS DERIVED FROM URBAN AGRICULTURE II.  BARRIERS TO URBAN AGRICULTURE: PROPERTY TAX AND ZONING CODES III. A HISTORY OF DIFFERENTIAL TAX SUPPORT TO PRESERVE AGRICULTURE      IN THE UNITED STATED IV.  APPLYING THE LESSONS FROM THE PERI-URBAN FRINGE TO CITIES: FROM      THE WILLIAMSON ACT TO AB 551 CONCLUSION 

INTRODUCTION

On February 20, 2013, California State Assemblyman Phil Ting introduced Assembly Bill (AB) 551. If passed, this bill "would create incentives for owners of undeveloped property in urban residential areas to lease their land for agricultural use or the creation of urban green space, or both." (1) Much like the California Land Conservation Act of 1965, AB 551 will allow local governments to provide tax relief for small urban farms. Whereas the intent of the California Land Conservation Act of 1965 (commonly known as the Williamson Act) was to protect California's rural agricultural land from urban development, (2) AB 551 could be a "Williamson Act" for cities, enabling local governments to encourage commercial agriculture where urban development is infeasible or has otherwise stalled.

In this Note, I explore how states, and in particular California, can help promote the creation of thriving agricultural sectors within cities. I first consider the benefits that come from urban agriculture, be they social, economic or environmental. I then discuss legal barriers that have all but rendered urban agriculture economically infeasible in California. Next, I review the history of differential tax programs employed to protect agriculture on the peri-urban fringe, to draw an analogy to that which could help foster agriculture within cities' limits. In the last Part, I explain the rationale that led to the proposal of AB 551, and how the application of a differential tax program, like the Williamson Act, but tailored to cities, can help spawn a new agricultural sector within cosmopolitan California.

I. THE BENEFITS DERIVED FROM URBAN AGRICULTURE

Urban agriculture in its various forms can provide an abundance of benefits to a city, including nutrition and job creation, not to mention increased home value and public safety. (3) By reducing the supply of vacant, unproductive urban land, agriculture can provide relief from blight and raise surrounding property values. (4) It can improve the public image of troubled neighborhoods and supply low-income residents with healthier and more nutritious food. (5) From an aesthetic and ecological viewpoint, urban agriculture increases the amount of neighborhood green space, reduces the need for food transportation through greater availability of local produce, and supports local and regional food systems in general.

Lastly, in terms of community development, urban agriculture helps instill pride and self-sufficiency among inner-city residents who grow food for themselves and others. (6) It can create jobs and revitalize the poorest neighborhoods by creating food-based employment (particularly for young people), thus bringing greater income to residents, useful job related skills and knowledge, and improving the overall quality of health and well being. And it can provide new, non-traditional program activities for community-based nonprofit organizations and educational opportunities for schools and their surrounding communities.

For all these reasons, over the past decade, urban agriculture has garnered significant interest across the country, in cities like Detroit, Salt Lake City, Baltimore, Austin, and San Francisco, citizens, organizations, and planners are working with legislators to craft laws and policies to promote the growth and sustainability of agriculture within city limits. (7) Yet, despite strong citizen and political support, in California, a complex web of local government laws, zoning ordinances, and property tax codes continue to prevent urban agriculture from evolving much beyond community gardens. …

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