City pilot program eyes vacant lots for urban farmland

City agencies are holidng public meetings as they launch a new pilot project that could bring genuine agriculture and certain farm animals to four city-owned vacant lots in Mattapan and Dorchester.

A meeting was held with residents on Dec 1. with representatives from the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), the Department of Neighborhood Development and Mayor Menino’s Office. The plan had first been presented to the community on Nov. 16.

The basis of the plan is an amendment to zoning codes, which would allow areas of the city to be designated as urban farmland. Currently, plots can be zoned as community gardens, which allow residents to grow produce for personal use only. The new laws will allow for individuals or organizations to produce crops for profit and to compost on-site materials.

“With urban gardening, you are reaching a very limited market,” said Edith Murnane, the Director of Food Initiatives at the Mayor’s office. “We are hoping that adding the commercial aspect will increase the availability of fresh produce.”

The amendments also allow conditional provisions strictly for the raising of small animals, such as chickens and rabbits, although these will only be allowed after a community hearing before the BRA Zoning board of appeals. Buildings will also be primarily limited to temporary structures known as “hoop houses.”

The project is part of a larger effort by the Mayor’s office to provide fresh, locally grown produce to neighborhoods. The four plots are labeled under the Greater Mattapan Neighborhood District in the BRA’s zoning maps, but are located in Dorchester on Ballou Ave, Tucker Street, Standish Street and Glenway Street. According to city planners, Mattapan and Dorchester are indicated as target areas for these kinds of food initiatives due to a lack of availability for fresh produce.

“These locations were chosen for two main reasons,” said John Read, a Senior Planner at the BRA. “First, there was an availibility of land, and then there was a need for this kind of program in the area.”

The amendment process for the zoning code will run tandem to a number of community engagement and outreach events that will be handled by the Department of Neighborhood Development, which will process Requests for Proposals(RFP) from potential tenants. DND expects to charge $400 to $500 per acre per year.

“The DND is very interested in directing our RFP process at nonprofit or for profit agencies that have an interest in the community,” said Andria Post-Ergun, the Senior Landscape Architect at the DND.

Due to health concerns, DND will require that lessees bus in treated soil to be placed on impermeable barriers, instead of using the native terrain. The aim is to avoid contamination risks that may be found in the chosen area. Lessees will also have to provide investments for infrastructure, such as the installation of water and electric lines, although the city is prepared to provide aid in surveying operations.

“I’m interested,” said local gardener and Dorchester resident Sonny Washington. “My biggest concern is about the kids, because they need more healthy food in their diets.” City employees hope to complete the project in time for the 2011 growing season, which begins in April.