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Yesterday, Councilmember and guardian-of-all-thingswarm-and-fuzzy Tommy Wells held a marathon roundtable on urban agriculture in D.C., bringing folks from all over the city to describe how they cultivate their gardens. As precious as land is in D.C., there’s actually still a lot of it that could be put to good use—-the challenge is securing the right to put down roots.

As it happens, city leaders were aware of this opportunity 25 years ago, when Council chairman Dave Clarke—-himself a well-known environmentalist—-pushed through the “Food Production and Urban Gardens Program Act of 1986.” The accompanying staff report cited an Office of Planning inventory of 20,000 available sites, and the bill directed the mayor to encourage the cultivation of those vacant lots by relieving owners of maintenance and insurance responsibilities in exchange for allowing them to be put to use for food production. It also aimed to include gardening projects in the Summer Youth Employment program, have the University of the District of Columbia to provide educational materials and technical assistance, and encourage food buying clubs and produce markets.

Well, the mayor at the time was Marion Barry, and his administration never published regulations as the law had directed, so it appears that Clarke’s forward-thinking vision was never implemented. Steve Coleman, of the prodigious non-profit Washington Parks and People, hadn’t even heard about it when I sent the legislation over. Which is too bad, because as Coleman learned in the long battle to create the North Columbia Heights Green, the obstacles to getting vacant lots into production are almost endless.

The main hangups are tax-related. Many vacant lots have gone to tax sale, and faraway investors have bought liens on the property, which have to be cleared before organizations can do much with it. Also, although land owned by non-profits isn’t taxed, if a private owner allows their land to be gardened, it is taxed at the regular rate—-and sometimes higher, if the District registers it as “vacant.”

That doesn’t really make sense, considering the salutary effect that well-tended green space can have on property values around it. Considering that they usually make no profit while making real estate more attractive, community gardens on undevelopable  land—-like the oddly-shaped interiors of blocks—-certainly shouldn’t be taxed like vacant lots.

That’s private land, though. Washington Parks and People is also targeting the gigantic, publicly-owned swaths of lawns behind fences in the District, like the National Arboretum, the Fort Circle parks, and the Old Soldiers Home. The latter does have a farm, Coleman says, but it’s closed off to the public. He remembers seeing a gardener inside handing a canteloupe to children through the fence that surrounds it.

“You just feel like you’re looking at Marie Antoinette with the cake,” Coleman says. “Instead of giving people a canteloupe, can’t we actually give people access to these federal sites?”

Read Coleman’s testimony for the roundtable here.

Photo via NorthColumbiaHeights.org