Food & Drink

Hundreds of vacant lots in city may benefit from urban ag ordinance

When urban farmer Fatima Malik steps past a chain-link fence onto a vacant lot in Del Paso Heights, she sees a plot of land that could someday be a fruit tree farm.

The parcel on Silver Eagle Road is one of hundreds scattered throughout Sacramento that could become urban farmland if the City Council approves an ordinance giving owners a tax break for converting their land to gardens.

The ordinance would establish agriculture incentive zones where vacant lot owners would enter into a five-year contract with the city to allow farming on a vacant lot in order to be taxed at a lower, agricultural tax rate.

For Malik, a member of the Del Paso Heights Growers Alliance, the ordinance will be the starting point for contacting owners of vacant lots along Silver Eagle Road. “There are a whole bunch of vacant lots on this street that could have urban farming on them,” Malik said.

She said that the cost of converting the Bianca Dexter’sweed-choked property to a fruit tree farm would be $300,000.

Passage of the ordinance, which may happen as soon as this fall, is seen as crucial step in encouraging the expansion of urban farming in the city. San Francisco became the first city in the state to offer the tax breaks last year, and has two vacant lots participating.

Dexter says the ordinance would help her make the land where whe grew up useful.

“Nothing is taking place with the land,” Dexter said. “I want to put it to good use for the neighborhood, and the community.”

Chanowk Yisrael, who operates the half-acre Yisrael Family farm in South Oak Park, said he has been approached by at least six landowners who want him to farm their vacant land. Yisrael said that there are close to 70 vacant or blighted lots in the South Oak Park and Fruitridge neighborhoods that could be planted.

“There are so many people that want me to do things on their land, but I don’t have enough people to do it,” Yisrael said. “So, it’s high time we train people who want to do this work because now there will be places where this work can be done.”

The tax incentive zone ordinance comes shortly after the city passed new rules allowing urban farmers to sell produce and fruit on-site.

“We would like to see some barriers come down for urban farmers to farm vacant and blighted lots,” said Helen Selph, associate planner with the city’s Community Development Department. “We want to give them (urban farmers) some tenure. We want them to know that when they put a lot of effort into a parcel that they can farm it for a while.”

Sacramento’s existing urban agriculture ordinance and the proposed tax incentive ordinance are an outgrowth of AB 551, state legislation passed in 2013. The bill authorized cities and counties to contract with landowners for reduced property taxes for urban farms.

Selph said her department does not have a current inventory of how many vacant lots could benefit from the tax breaks. The department estimates hundreds of lots would be eligible.

Neighborhoods like Oak Park and Del Paso Heights that have been identified as food deserts are the most promising areas for vacant lot conversion, said Matt Read, organizer with the Sacramento Urban Farming Coalition. The coalition is helping the city craft the ordinance language. Read said the coalition has identified 20 vacant lots in and around the Fruitridge area where there is interest from either a lot owner or an urban farmer for farming on a vacant lot. Southside Park also has lots that would be eligible to participate.

The ordinance brings with it several drawbacks. One would be a property tax revenue loss for the county of Sacramento, Read said. However, the loss would be small. The ordinance caps revenue loss at $250,000 for the city and the county.

Converted vacant lots would be assessed at the going tax rate for the state’s irrigated farmland, according to the ordinance language. That rate is roughly $12,100 per acre, according to the State Board of Equalization. The Sacramento County Assessor estimates property owners will save an average of $937 a year per parcel.

The tax savings don’t completely offset the costs of creating farms on vacant lots. Water delivery, for instance, is a signficant expense. The city will require all vacant lots included in the program to install water meters, said Jim McDonald, planner with Sacramento’s Community Development department. “It could cost between $5,000 and $10,000 for the water meter, the taps and the labor,” he said.

McDonald said the tax incentive zone ordinance is designed to defray such costs. “Owners can already allow urban farming without the tax break, but then they would be out the cost of the water hookup.”

The drought may be a factor since the ordinance stipulates that the urban farms must conform to the city’s water conservation plan, which would not allow for any irrigation other than drip irrigation, and would limit what can be grown.

The ordinance will be heard by the city’s Planning Commission before it heads to the City Council for what is expected to be a fall vote.

Edward Ortiz: 916-321-1071, @edwardortiz