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New California Law Aims to Cultivate Urban Agriculture

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SAN FRANCISCO - Sandwiched between rows of homes in the fog-kissed Mission Terrace neighborhood, Little City Gardens provides salad greens and fresh-cut flowers to local restaurants from what was once a weedy vacant lot.

Like many of California's urban agriculture practitioners, however, Caitlyn Galloway is plagued by a key uncertainty: She is on a month-to-month lease with a landlord who must recoup the lot's steep property taxes and may soon sell or develop.

Now, California cities and counties eager to encourage community gardens and small-scale farms in urban pockets have a novel tool at their disposal that could help solve Galloway's problem. Legislation recently signed by Gov. Jerry Brown will allow municipalities to lower the assessed value - and property taxes - on plots of three acres or less if owners pledge to dedicate them to growing food for at least five years.

"As urban farmers one of the biggest obstacles we've faced is land tenure," said Galloway, 32. "It's a huge step for urban agriculture."

The legislation authored by Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) arose from this city's rich blend of urban ag interests: community gardens with long waiting lists, nonprofits that offer hands-on nutritional education, and small enterprises like Galloway's that took root when officials here changed zoning laws.

The program is voluntary: Interested cities can now move forward to create "urban agriculture incentive zones." County supervisors must then sign off. (Counties can also directly create their own zones.)

It passed the Senate unanimously and garnered just six no votes in the Assembly. Sole opposition came from the California Assessors' Assn., which cited potential for abuse by corporate property owners who might cut deals with local government. The bill was later amended to curtail lot size.   

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