Change urged to help promote urban farms

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Capital News Service 
LANSING – Legislators from Detroit and Greenville have teamed up in an effort to ease restrictions on Detroit under the state farming laws.
A bill by Reps. Gabe Leland, D-Detroit, and Mike Huckleberry, D-Greenville, would exclude Detroit from the Michigan Right to Farm Act, which limits the legal right of neighbors to sue farmers about noise and smell complaints.
“By exempting Detroit, the city would be free to apply practical rules to urban agriculture,” said Joe Taylor, Leland’s chief of staff.
The Michigan Right to Farm Act protects farmers from complaints and nuisance lawsuits and prohibits local farming regulations that are more stringent than state ones, according to the Department of Agriculture.
The legislation would allow the city to set different standards.
For example, Taylor said, under the Right to Farm Act a farmer may be allowed to apply pesticides at a wind speed of 10 miles per hour, but if a farm is next to an apartment building, the city should be able to set a lower limit, such as 2 or 5 miles per hour.
“We want to make sure that the city is free to implement the rules that make the best sense for it,” he said.
Under the law, farm operations aren’t considered nuisances if they conform to generally accepted agricultural and management practices developed by the Commission of Agriculture.
Jennifer Holton, a public information officer at the department, said the department opposes exempting any city from the law because it relies on science-based, acceptable practices that allow commercial agriculture to operate safely and responsibly.
Russ Harding, director of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s Property Rights Network, said the bill would make it more difficult for Detroiters to garden or raise animals.
Midland-based Mackinac Center is a free-market-oriented think tank.
“When you look at Detroit, the city is extremely distressed,” he said. “You don’t want to prevent them from anything they might be able to do to help raise the family.”
But a law professor at Wayne State University, John Mogk, said he supports the bill because the current law doesn’t address farming by city residents.
He said the law was designed to shield existing farms against urban sprawl, but Detroit doesn’t have that problem.
“Instead, the city is in a reverse situation,” Mogk said.
Mogk said environmental concerns related to farming practices, such as water and soil contamination, air pollution and increased water demands, are growing as urban farming expands in Detroit.
Therefore, the city needs its own regulations that promote farming and protect neighborhoods and the environment, he said.
Mogk said Detroit has an estimated 30,000 acres of vacant land and spends about $800,000 a year to maintain a small portion of that.
Urban farming releases the city from that financial burden, he said.
According to the Detroit Agriculture Network, the city has more than 900 farming lots.
Kami Pothukuchi, an associate professor in urban planning at Wayne State, said urban farming benefits the city by creating jobs, providing fresh and healthy food, and increasing property tax revenues.
Holton said the Department of Agriculture will continue discussions with farming organizations and Detroit officials to promote agricultural opportunities.
But Pothukuchi said to support urban agriculture, the city needs a full-scale exemption from the Right to Farm Act.
Although the bill as written applies only to Detroit, she suggested that Detroit partner with other cities, such as Grand Rapids and Flint, where urban farming thrives.
The bill is pending in the House’s Urban Policy Committee.
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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