A few years ago, a friend of mine was putting an extensive green roof on her house. She got all the necessary permits from the City without any problem. That is until she decided to put a railing on the roof so she could get up there and safely maintain the native plants. The City said no way, that would make it a roof deck and you would need a different permit for that. The roof was sloped, so it would not be ideal for lounging around in patio furniture. In the end, my friend installed a pole in the centre of the roof and strapped a harness to it so she can tend to the plants.
In 2009, Erin Innes, an enthusiastic urban farmer and permaculture educator was growing vegetables in her front and back yard. The landlord whole-heartedly supported the urban agriculture, but the owner of a nearby house did not (he didn’t live there) and complained to the City. The untidy premises bylaw was invoked and Erin and her housemates lost a big chunk of their garden and were seriously hampered in their efforts to grow food.
Similar situations are happening around the country. In Toronto, apparently only grass and a few flowers are deemed appropriate in the front yard. Right now in the district of Lantzville, a small community near Nanaimo, BC, Dirk Becker has also been ordered to stop growing vegetables on his property. A neighbour complained and when the bylaw officer paid Becker a visit, he discovered that the urban farmer sells his produce at the local farmers market. Turns out you can grow food for your own consumption, but it’s illegal to sell it commercially. The home business bylaw does not allow for agriculture and is quite common in communities across the country.
On the one hand you have local government encouraging and supporting urban agriculture and other food security initiatives, and on the other hand you find proponents mired in bylaws, permits and zoning red tape. For the most part, staff are probably looking the other way with all this new food growing activity. But when someone complains, the bylaw officers have to do their job. Fortunately, there seems to be a cooperative atmosphere in this part of the country.
The Mayor of Lantzville has said the bylaw needs revisiting and has invited Becker to present to council. The City of Victoria has already amended their home-based business bylaw to allow for food production. Earlier this year, the City of Van streamlined the permitting process for farmers markets but some of the groups running pocket markets found themselves jumping through more hoops than ever before. Turns out the regulations had been written by one department, but were enforced by another. A few conversations with City staff though and the concerns were quickly addressed.
We all need to work with local governments to help them bring bylaws, permitting and zoning regulations up to speed with the fabulously innovative and evolving food movement. Food policy councils and sustainability departments can also play a role in communicating across the silos and letting the right hand know what the left hand is doing. And let’s hope that little green roof snafu has been resolved.