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Binghamton urban farmers ask city for laws to ease expansion

Matt Richmond

Johan Jelsma is taking me on a tour of his garden on the West Side of Binghamton. He rattles off the names of plants in just one small patch of his yard:

“Eggplants, brussel sprouts, a little bit of remnants of peas left and cucumber, melon.”

Jelsma's entire yard is taken over by a garden of vegetables and fruit trees and flowers. He says some passersby describe it as the wild yard.

“I didn’t like grass per se. I mean I like laying on it, I like running but I definitely don’t enjoy mowing.”

While Jelsma was still transforming his yard, complaints from at least one of his neighbors led to visits from a city zoning officer. He was cited for 9 violations, including overgrowth into the sidewalk and a compost pile that the code officer described as a fire hazard.

“He’s like, you know, well, what if somebody wandered in here with a lit cigarette and threw it on here with these dry leaves. Well then that would be trespassing and an arsonist, right?”

Jelsma’s ordeal with the code department was cited by all the supporters of urban farm zoning that I spoke to for this story. Proposed legislation before Binghamton city council would update codes for things like composting and backyard chickens in case neighbors start complaining.

Lauren Tonti is community garden manager for the local non-profit Volunteers Improving Neighborhood Environments or VINES.

“You know, there’s use definitions for businesses, there’s use definitions for bars, schools, there’s use definitions for parks, things like that, but not for gardens,” says Tonti.

She says that zoning rules for market farms, not backyard gardens, is the most important part of the legislation. We met at her organization’s farm, tucked in between the Susquehanna River and a highway. The neighborhood was underwater during the 2011 flood. But the farm survived and Tonti sees all kinds of opportunities for growth.

“All these buildings that you see around us are going to have to come down, nothing can be built here, there’s nothing you can do except gardening,” says Tonti.

While it makes sense in a neighborhood like this one, other areas of the city are less welcoming.

Bill Berg is a city councilman for a part of the city with mostly single family homes and opposes the new zoning.

“We don’t need to over-saturate the area with farming, urban agriculture farms, when we could be using these properties, these vacant properties, to revitalize them,” says Berg.

Market gardens are only allowed by special permit in the single family neighborhoods and Berg says people in his district don’t want them at all.

On Tuesday, the council sent the law back to committee for changes. Right now, three Republicans oppose it, one is undecided, and three Democrats support it. John Matzo is the deciding vote.

“I just don’t understand why we need more laws, rules and regulations on things that are already in existence,” says Matzo.

Dan Livingston and Rebecca Heller-Steinberg keep four chickens in their backyard, along with honey bees and a vegetable garden. Livingston says updating the laws would be a good way to show support for something they hope will keep spreading.

“I think when other people start saying hey, I want to do it, I think it’s going to be hard for the city to come up with a way on the fly to make sense of all those different activities happening at once,” says Livingston.

Binghamton wouldn’t be the first city to take up zoning changes like this. Market gardens are included in the City of Buffalo’s ongoing zoning rewrite. Cleveland has an urban garden district and Boston has nine sub-districts where urban farming is permitted.