Downtown alderman proposes legalizing sale of Chicago rooftop veggies

05/18/2011 10:00 PM

Contributing Reporter

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A rooftop garden sits atop City Hall in the heart of downtown.
City of Chicago/Department of Environment

The right to operate a for-profit farm in Chicago has long been an iffy subject, but all signs indicate that the city is ready to take on the idea.

Rooftop gardens are far from rare; hoophouses, rows of potted plants and raised beds can be found covering the tops of residential and commercial buildings throughout the city — including on the roof of City Hall.

But due to a lack of regulations and licensing processes, produce growers on roofs and anywhere else in Chicago are currently not permitted to sell their goods.

In April, Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) introduced amendments to the city’s zoning code that would classify commercial rooftop farming as an established “by-right” use in some areas of Chicago.

If passed, the ordinance would be an economic boon for farmers looking to turn a buck on their rooftop produce, said Molly Meyer, owner of Rooftop Green Works, a company that builds and maintains green roofs.

Meyer has worked on green roof projects in several countries and she consulted Reilly on the amendments. She said that rooftop farmers won’t need to look far for customers, as an increasing lot of restaurants are eager to buy their ingredients as locally as possible.

“We can drop food from the top of the buildings onto their plate,” she said. “That’s not food-miles anymore, that’s vertical feet.”

Reilly said that the zoning adjustments were inspired by residents like Meyer who are looking to grow their businesses in his ward.

“I am hoping that my colleagues will recognize the value of this change,” he said.

Under city law, farming in Chicago is a de-regulated grey area. The municipal code — which oversees zoning rules, among other things — classifies community and commercial gardening as two completely separate uses.

Neither are clearly defined or regulated under the code, “making it difficult to distinguish between them and thereby creating a burdensome review process,” wrote Andrew Mooney, commissioner of the city’s Department of Housing and Economic Development, in a letter to the Chicago-based Advocates for Urban Agriculture in March.

The challenge of streamlining this process has spurred the city and its agricultural advocates to begin working on some ground rules for operating farms in Chicago — a discussion that has yet to bear much fruit.

In December, Mayor Richard M. Daley introduced an urban agriculture ordinance that sought to define and provide regulations for community and commercial farming.

The ordinance proposed limits on square-footage for community farms and reiterated already-established restrictions on the use of compost brought from outside of the sites.

These regulations were met with negative reviews from the Chicago Food Policy Advisory Council, who, along with the AUA, had met with the city to help steer the ordinance. The Advisory Council criticized the city for adopting the state’s composting laws and being heavy-handed in its restriction of sales at community gardens.

“Rather than viewing, and supporting, Commercial Urban Agriculture projects as a special use of residential, business, commercial, public and private land,” wrote the group’s board in a statement, “[the city] chooses to view it as any other business endeavor.”

The ordinance went through a series of revisions and was eventually tabled before the zoning committee.

Reilly’s rooftop farming ordinance also includes composting restrictions, and would permit for-profit farms to operate in all commercial areas and in some business districts granted that the owners obtain a special use permit.

Like its predecessor, which was the first to contain language on rooftop zoning, Reilly’s ordinance bars commercial farming in all residential areas, save for those in the downtown district — much of which sits squarely in his ward.

The dawn of a new city government could also signal a windfall for Chicago’s growers. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was inaugurated on Monday, has listed the promotion of urban agriculture as among his first priorities.

Emanuel stated in his transition plan that, within a year, “restrictions on urban agriculture and aquaponics (a farming practice that combines raising fish with plant cultivation) will be lifted.”

Until then, an established policy on urban commercial farming can’t come soon enough, said Meyer.

“Right now there’s a right to have a construction zone, right to have a gas station, but there’s no right to have a farm,” she said. “It’s so simple, because we get food from it, so it’s a little backwards.”

The rooftop farming ordinance is slated to be heard at the city’s next zoning committee meeting on May 26.

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By Rael Slutsky from Deerfield
Posted: 08/06/2011 5:07 PM

Was this ordinance passed?