Chicago Urban Farmers Cry Foul About Proposed Ordinance

I Grow Chicago community garden
I Grow Chicago maintains a community garden in West Englewood. A proposed ordinance in Chicago City Council could impact its livestock. Natalie Moore / WBEZ
I Grow Chicago community garden
I Grow Chicago maintains a community garden in West Englewood. A proposed ordinance in Chicago City Council could impact its livestock. Natalie Moore / WBEZ

Chicago Urban Farmers Cry Foul About Proposed Ordinance

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On a warm October day, Ald. Raymond Lopez walks around a community garden in his 15th Ward, pointing out beds for broccoli, eggplant, tomatoes and lettuce. I Grow Chicago, in West Englewood, also has chickens named after Assatta Shakur and Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

Lopez represents neighborhoods with some of the most well-known nonprofit urban agriculture social enterprises. He’s pushing for a two-part ordinance in the Chicago City Council that would limit the number of livestock on a residential property, and strikingly, create the ability to petition for outright bans of both livestock and urban farms. Yet, the urban ag community says he’s looking for a solution where there is no problem.

“I know there’ve been a number of critiques that people have made regarding this,” Lopez said. “Any time you’re talking about new regulations for people who have gone unregulated for so long, the first thing people will say is it’s unnecessary.”

The ordinance, co-sponsored by Ald. Anthony Napolitano, 41st Ward, proposes:

  • Limiting residential livestock to six fowl and two livestock

  • Restricting livestock to single-family and two-flat homes

  • A ban on roosters

  • New business licensing for urban farms

  • A permit of $25 a year

  • Informing neighbors within 500 feet

  • Fines ranging from $100 to $500 for violations

The most dramatic elements of the proposed ordinance could end owning residential livestock and urban ag altogether. If at least 25% of the voters in a precinct sign a petition banning residential livestock or an urban farm, it goes to their City Council member who in turn can introduce another ordinance prohibiting the activity. And it doesn’t matter if a home already has animals or if an urban farm already exists — no longer would they be allowed.

Most farms are located on the city’s South and West Sides where access to fresh food is limited and there’s ample vacant land. Lopez said more regulation would help the industry grow and expand all over the city, including the Gold Coast.

“You don’t necessarily have a strong market where individuals know there’s a path for urban agriculture that doesn’t rely on the department of planning to tell them to go ahead and do that. We’re really suppressing the entrepreneurship of urban farming by not outlining how you can do it without having to rely on bureaucrats downtown to say this is where you can do it, this is where can’t do it,” Lopez said.

However, officials with the city’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD) said farmers can operate in portions of the city as a right, like any other business. They don’t need any special approvals from DPD or other agencies. And the urban ag industry is already growing without the provisions Lopez has proposed.

In 2011, the city of Chicago changed its zoning to accommodate urban agriculture. Since 2011, the amount of land prepared and provided by the city for urban farming has increased from approximately three acres to more than 16 acres.

Meanwhile, Lopez insisted that his motivation is not to do away with farms or livestock. Something else bothered him.

“About a half a mile behind me is where we had a house that had 120 roosters [participate in] a cockfighting ring,” Lopez said.

A number of local urban ag advocates who’ve heard that anecdote call Lopez’s ordinance reactionary. They argued that cockfighting is already illegal in Chicago and they say there’s no chicken-fighting epidemic.

Erika Allen is co-founder of Urban Growers Collective, a nonprofit that advocates for small farmers of color. She said the city has historically supported urban ag, which has an important place in the city.

“It’s place based. It’s something that we need to have the ability to grow our own food and teach our children how to grow food and to stay reconnected to those traditions. It’s economic development, it’s beautification and greening,”

Laura Calvert, of Advocates for Urban Agriculture, estimated that there are 50 commercial urban farms in the city.

“We stand in opposition to this ordinance with many of our other policy partners. First of all, this ordinance caught us by absolute surprise,” Calvert said.

Calvert said the proposed changes are arbitrary and Lopez didn’t engage farmers. In addition, Calvert said that city ordinances already address public health concerns related to noise, waste and odor. She said livestock has always been allowed in the city.

As for the ordinance opening the door to the prohibition of livestock and urban farms in some areas, Calvert said there’s only one other activity in Chicago subjected to a similar ban — Airbnbs.

“This seems to be kind of random,” Calvert said.

Petitions and calls are going out to City Council members. And Lopez admitted that the ordinance, which is still in committee, doesn’t have enough votes right now. But he argued that the legislation encourages community engagement.

Still, there is some common ground between Lopez and urban ag advocates — the need for a business license specific to urban ag, not a general business license. But advocates said Lopez’s proposed ordinance doesn’t create a path or solution.

“What we do hope that happens is that [the proposed ordinance] creates an opportunity for the urban ag community to work with the city of Chicago to say ‘Hey, we have some majority priorities in our community including land access, affordable water access, business licensing. Let’s work on this together, proactively and collaboratively, to strengthen the urban agriculture community versus threaten it,’” Calvert said.

Natalie Moore is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. You can follow her on Twitter at @natalieywmoore.