Urban Land Lease Program Ward 6 site
Urban Land Lease Program Ward 6 site Credit: Laura Hayes

D.C. selected the first two awardees of its Urban Farming Land Lease Program back in February. The program enables the city to identify vacant plots of land and lease them at no cost to urban agriculture companies or nonprofits. The launch was a long time coming. Urban farming stakeholders have eagerly awaited the implementation of the D.C. Urban Farming and Food Security Act of 2014, which included the creation of this program and an urban agriculture tax abatement program.

But now new factors could delay the awardees from breaking ground as quickly as they expected—among them, the creation of brand new DC Office of Urban Agriculture and a call for further soil testing based on vague wording in the original legislation.

In November, the Department of General Services put out a call for proposals for two pieces of land—one in the 1600 block of Kramer St. NE between 16th and 17th streets NE in Ward 6 and one at Longfellow and 9th streets NW in Ward 4. DGS told City Paper back in March that they received five proposals from which they selected two awardees. Each Urban Land Lease Program awardee was to receive a five-year lease with the option to extend to up to 13 years.

As of this week, neither awardee has received even a draft lease to review. When City Paper asked DGS for an update, Director Keith A. Anderson provided the following statement:

“[DGS] is pleased to be taking a leadership role to implement the District’s first-ever Urban Farming Program. As such, it is incumbent upon the agency to follow safety precautions that include soil testing standards which will provide clarity of terminology and process and are a necessary precedent to the execution of urban farm lease agreements. The implementation of these standards will not impact contract awards for Ward 4 and 6.”

“We complied with the soil testing requirements months ago,” says Jeremy Brosowsky, whose company Agricity was selected to farm the site in Ward 4. He’s worked closely with the city on sustainability and urban agriculture for almost a decade, largely through Agricity’s Compost Cab service. “We haven’t heard about what the next steps are.”

The sticky point is that the amended legislation from 2016 says DGS must have proof that the soil has been “tested for and found to be substantially free of contamination from arsenic, lead, and heavy metals.” From a legal and liability perspective, “substantially free” is challenging to define. Anderson says he hopes to have clear and actionable soil testing standards in place “no later than the end of 2019.”

DGS appears to be operating out of an abundance of caution; neither awardee plans to plant directly into the soil. They’re using greenhouses, raised beds, and other techniques. “When [the DC Council] wrote the law, they included a requirement that soil be tested regardless of farming method—whether raised beds or hydroponic towers,” Anderson says.

The awardees aren’t the only ones itching to see the program get off the ground. Each proposal was to contain a community engagement component, such as educational programming for students. And, the awardees invested time getting buy-in from residents, some of whom have been counting down to the “greening” of these vacant lots.

“I still have a positive outlook on the program and we look forward to working with the city,” says Thomas Langan of Apogee Farms, the Ward 6 awardee. “I’m happy to ride through the storm, I just need a little bit of help.”

That help might come from a different agency than DGS. This spring Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh successfully passed legislation and identified funding for the creation of D.C.’s first Office of Urban Agriculture. It will be housed under the Department of Energy and the Environment and Cheh’s Fiscal Year 2020 Committee Budget Report says the new office would manage the Urban Farming Land Lease Program as well as the Urban Agriculture Tax Abatement Program.  

“We had begun something with DGS, but DGS never really warmed up to the idea and it kind of languished,” she says. “DOEE is keen on it. They’re enthusiastic about it. I wanted to take it out of a place of no action to an entity that wants to do something.”

Another benefit of having a dedicated Office of Urban Agriculture, according to Cheh, is it positions the District to access federal grant money for urban farming projects. “I’m told there’s a lot of money we’ve been leaving on the table because we didn’t have an urban agriculture department,” she says.

Cheh is a cheerleader for urban agriculture because urban farms are more than a food source. “We have kids and adults who, because of the urban environment, are estranged from the land,” she says. “It’s a re-engagement with nature and the kids love it. It’ll increase access to healthy foods in a small way but it opens people’s minds and encourages them to eat healthy.”

The Office of Urban Agriculture will take some time to get off the ground given the funding ($122,000 in fiscal year 2020) won’t become available until October and DOEE will need to hire a director. That means the Urban Land Lease Program and the Urban Agriculture Tax Abatement Program could be delayed even further.

Despite this, Brosowsky supports the move because of how beneficial it will be in the long run to have someone within DOEE to “marshal the city’s deep resources on behalf of urban agriculture efforts in all eight wards. He says he’s “fired up” and choosing to be optimistic.

“Setting aside the gaps in communication around these programs, which I think have been frustrating for everyone, the city is well positioned to make this program a success by taking a holistic approach,” he says. “I’m hoping we see a terrific new urban agriculture director in place and ready to go as soon as the new fiscal year begins.”

Brosowsky points out that office will need the support of other agencies and the mayor. Even if DGS passes the baton to DOEE, the future Office of Urban Agriculture will still need to work with the agency because DGS controls the land. Just as the Office of Tax and Revenue will need to be on board with the tax abatement program. “And, of course, I hope that one of the first things the new director does is get our land-lease program, and the tax abatement moving forward.”

Kristof Grina, co-founder and farm director of Up Top Acres, has been a champion of D.C. urban agriculture legislation from the start. He submitted his application to the tax abatement program back in March. The program makes it possible for everyone from big commercial building owners to private landowners to apply to receive up to a 90 percent tax abatement of real property taxes on the portion of the property used continuously as an urban farm.

“We’re pretty disappointed in how DGS has handled the process,” Grina says. “I think communication could be a lot better.” He says he also received notice that there was an issue with soil testing, but didn’t understand how it applied to Up Top Acres since they farm on rooftops and on private land. “As a part of the application, we submitted an analysis of the [growing medium] we use on our rooftop. So in terms of liability of the city, I would like some clarification on that as well.”

Grina, too, is frustrated that after waiting for more than four years for urban farming legislation to come to fruition, it’s stalled again. But like others, he’s behind the creation of the Office of Urban Agriculture under DOEE.

“The reason we’ve stuck with this for so long is the tax abatement portion is a key that can unlock tremendous growth in the industry,” he says. “This city knows how to give tax abatements. It’s tried and true. We’re super excited to work to make this a reality. Every day we’re missing out is a missed opportunity. We want to get it going to make the city the best it can be and set it up so the programs live on.”

Mayor Muriel Bowser, after all, set a goal of adding 20 additional acres of urban agriculture by 2032 in the Sustainable DC 2.0 Plan.