Mike Koozmin/the s.f. examinerDr. Aaron Roland

Tax break sowing the seeds of urban agriculture growth

One recent rainy afternoon, Aaron Roland stood on his Potrero Hill vacant corner lot with sweeping views of downtown San Francisco and the Bay Bridge, bit into a kale leaf he picked from the permaculture garden and explained how he once turned down a $2 million cash offer for the 0.11-acre property.

Roland, 57, a family doctor who lives in the Mission, is San Francisco's first property owner to obtain a tax break under the new Urban Agriculture Incentive Zone program. For the next five years, his property-tax bill will total $80 not $35,688.

“I bought it thinking I would build a home,” Roland said.

He never did but after growing attached to the open-space gem, the thought of selling it off for housing makes him depressed. The tax break removes all doubt as to whether he's making the right decision.

“I'm well enough off that I wouldn't have had to sell it,” he said. “But the temptation is very strong.”

Roland used to grow vegetables on the lot when he rented nearby, and as a doctor, he tells his patients to eat 10 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. When he read an article about Kevin Bayuk, founder of the Urban Permaculture Institute of San Francisco, he invited Bayuk to work his magic on the parcel. Bayuk has created a thriving permaculture garden on the spot, where there are gardening classes and it remains open to the public.

Some critics of the tax-break program said it would compete with housing needs, but Roland responds: “I strongly do believe that The City needs housing, but it doesn't need four more million-dollar condos and that's what you'd get here.”

One nearby neighbor happened by with his dog and met Roland for the first time.

“It's been a great space for people who live locally,” said John Tobeler, who has visited the site for 20 years, back when it was just a sandlot. “People end up crossing paths here, so neighbors all get to know each other.”

Tobeler had added his own touch to the parcel: A while back the interior designer had placed two cement Mexican equipale chairs for people to sit and relax among the fruits and vegetables growing around them. Some come by and pick up some vegetables for their own use, like for salads, but Roland said he would like to see most of the food donated to food pantries.

In dense San Francisco, where land is scarce and the housing market is strong, cases like Roland's are exceptional. But for years, some have fought to change that. Following a sudden rise in urban agriculture popularity beginning in 2008, several studies called for a major boost in the activity for varied reasons ranging from preparing for peak oil to feeding the hungry. Seattle's 7-acre Beacon Food Forest, a community farm still being created, is often pointed to as a model.

In an effort to grow its agricultural output, San Francisco has become the first in the state to implement the tax-break program made possible under a state law adopted last year. In exchange for the tax break, property owners agree to have agriculture on the property for five years. Parcels must be between 0.1 acres and 3 acres to qualify. Two applied by the first application deadline of Oct. 1, only Roland's was approved. Property owners can apply at future dates.

Supporters of the effort say the program will unlikely have a large impact in San Francisco, given the land limitations, density and hot real estate market — maybe a handful over time. They were most enthusiastic about how it created a model that could convince other cities throughout the state to follow suit, strengthening the urban agricultural movement.

The Assessor-Recorder's Office said there were 5,262 vacant lots in San Francisco but were unable to immediately provide further details such as lot size and addresses, making it unclear how many would be suitable to gardening and could qualify for the tax incentive.

The program adds to other recent changes to create more urban farming and gardening, partly in response to a 2012 report from public-policy think tank SPUR, which found The City's urban agriculture efforts were “uncoordinated and inefficient.”

Karen Peteros, co-founder and director of San Francisco Bee-Cause, had hoped the tax break could have helped her situation. The nonprofit once operated an apiary program at the Hayes Valley Farm, a farm on public land that closed recently to make way for a housing development.

“I drove around for a year and a half to find something,” Peteros said.

She found a few lots owned by Clear Channel at San Bruno and Paul avenues, which she moved onto last year signing a one-year, $1 lease that has now turned into month-to-month. She had hoped the tax-break program would convince Clear Channel to commit to a longer arrangement, but she said it declined to apply — it would have dropped the $25,000-a-year tax bill to $70, she said — raising questions about how long she has left there. She said it intends to sell the property.

“We promised to turn it from an eyesore to eye candy, which I think we've done,” Peteros said.

Peteros said recent closures of urban agricultural sites are a setback.

“There was this explosion a number of years back and now it's contracting and we might lose ours eventually,” Peteros said. Free Farm, Esperanza Garden, the Coming Home Garden and the Hayes Valley Farm were among the recent closures.

The Recreation and Park Department launched in 2014 the Urban Agriculture Program, which places the department in charge of urban agriculture on all public land, and hired Hannah Shulman, formerly a garden educator, to coordinate the effort among city departments and nonprofits.

There are 38 community gardens on Rec and Park land. An average community garden in our system is about a quarter of an acre in size, has 33 garden plots, and serves 53 gardeners. In early 2014, there were 750 people on the wait list hoping to have a chance to garden.

“The fact that there is a healthy wait list shows there is a great need,” Rec and Park General Manager Phil Ginsburg said. “Identifying more spots to engage in community gardening is our goal.”

Ginsburg dismissed the impact of recent closures.

“It's totally strengthening,” he said of urban agriculture in The City.

Jay Rosenberg, who was once co-director of the Hayes Valley Farm, shares Ginsburg's view.

“I'd say it's really growing. There have been noteworthy closures, but at the same time, new ones have popped up.”

Rosenberg is founder of 49 Farms, a group advocating for “one in every square mile” of San Francisco.

Eli Zigas focuses on urban agriculture for SPUR, a major supporter of the tax incentive.

“There's not a rush of applications to go for this. That matches our expectation,” Zigas said.

He said of urban agriculture overall that “it is hard to gauge if the momentum has crested, if it's going down. There's still strong interest. Policywise San Francisco now is in a real good spot.”

Bayuk said he is involved in an effort to compile an inventory of feasible new urban agriculture sites. As for recommendations, he said, The City should plant more fruit trees, like almond trees, in its park spaces, open up more public land to agriculture and hire stewards of the agricultural sites for steady oversight.

Those aren't new ideas, but with the added focus, they may start coming to fruition. It is the SPUR 2012 report that encouraged The City to respond to the energy and interests of its citizenry in urban agriculture, noting the wide benefits like “vibrant greenspaces and recreation, education about fresh food and the effort it takes to produce it, cost savings and ecological benefits for the city, sites that help build community, and a potential source of modest economic development.

“But the city will not fully capture these benefits unless it responds to the growing interest and energy behind the issue,” the report said.

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