Yancey questions city’s urban farming initiative

City Councillor Charles Yancey and several disgruntled residents faced off against Menino administration officials this week, claiming they were not informed about the city’s attempt to temporarily turn four city-owned vacant lots in Dorchester into urban farms.

Proponents say the farms would put the vacant lots to use, improving community access to affordable and healthy food by allowing cultivation of crops and composting of materials on properties that range from a quarter acre to a half-acre. The properties, owned by the Department of Neighborhood Development, include 131 Glenway St., 18-24 Standish St., 23-29 Tucker St. and the parcel between 94 Ballou Ave. and 116 Ballou Ave.

But some abutters, who attended a City Council hearing at the Great Hall in Codman Square on Monday evening, said there hadn’t been enough community engagement in the process. Lolanda Randal, a Ballou Ave. resident, said she first heard from Yancey, who called for the hearing, about the plan for the farms.

She said she has concerns about whether the farms would attract rodents, because her sons are allergic to mice.

“No one knocked on my door,” she said. “No one mailed me anything. That’s why I’m here. I’m concerned. I’m concerned about my kids’ health.”

She and others expressed apprehension over who would be leasing the sites from the city and how closely they would interact with community members, as well as concern about whether the soil used would be contaminated.

“The city rolled this out in a way that was not communicated well enough with the community initially,” said state Rep. Russell Holmes of Mattapan. But city officials stepped back – dropping the idea of having animals on the plots and holding additional meetings and hearings – and have done a “much better job,” he added.

In response to some of the parcels’ neighbors at the hearing, held at Codman Square’s Great Hall, Edith Murnane, Mayor Thomas Menino’s food policy director, said city officials knocked on “every abutter’s door” and left flyers.

Administration officials brought to the hearing a thick packet outlining their community outreach efforts, including newspaper notices, agendas, filled out sign-in sheets, and PowerPoint presentations for each of the five community meetings held between November and April, and the mailing list for property owners in the area.

Community members will also be able to meet with prospective farms to discuss their proposals before starting to farm, and if the farmer creates a nuisance, DND would intervene and shut them down, according to a fact sheet provided by the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

About 50 people attended City Council hearing at the Great Hall.

Noemi Ramos, executive director at the advocacy group New England United For Justice, said community members had been “up in arms” over the project, and she thanked city officials at the Department of Neighborhood Development and the Boston Redevelopment Authority for scheduling additional meetings about the proposal. City officials also met with community leaders, and a Zoning Commission hearing, necessary because the urban farms require a change in zoning, was postponed from March to late summer.

If the urban farms don’t get placed at the lots, “we will have empty lots left in our neighborhood,” she noted.

Yancey, a frequent Menino administration critic, said he likes the concept of an urban farm. But he slammed the BRA and DND as “arrogant,” and argued that they had ignored the community by moving ahead with the proposal. “This is not a plantation,” he said. “These are residents who deserve respect.”

Yancey’s hearing also drew testimony from ReVision Urban Farm in Dorchester’s Franklin Field neighborhood, which works with the ReVision Family Home, a homeless shelter for 22 families. Their garden has been in operation since 1990, selling herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, carrots and an array of lettuces.

The soil is tested every year through a UMass-Amherst lab, and there hasn’t been an increase in rodents since the farm’s establishment, said Jolie Olivetti, one of the farmers.

Jonathan Sherwood, the director of housing services at the family home, said his nonprofit organization is interested in leasing one of the vacant lots.

The current ReVision farm sells food at the Dorchester House and employs local youth in the summer. People can also use food stamps to buy the fruits and vegetables, he said.

“We’re very involved with the neighborhood,” he said.