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New Milwaukee Ordinance Could Help Bring A Community Garden to An Empty Lot Near You

S Bence

Milwaukee residents can already raise hens and honey. Now a proposed zoning ordinance lays out how community gardeners can use empty lots to grow fruits and vegetables.
Alderman Willie Wade says so many vegetable patches have sprouted across his district, he can’t keep track. He wants the city to keep closer watch on which community gardens have permits and which do not.

“Before you start planning and fertilizing and all of that stuff, you need to get some permission from the city to occupy this space," Wade says. "I want to be ahead of that and think this is the time of year to have that discussion before I’m walking through this beautiful harvest and I look like the Grinch; I don’t want to be in that position. I really don’t."

Under the plan, gardening groups will need to apply for a permit to plant on empty city- and privately-owned lots; and they must also notify neighbors and the alderman in that district.

Head of the city's office of environmental sustainability Matt Howard and his team have been tweaking the proposed ordinance. “And I think this ordinance gets us to a point, where we don’t put in an uncomfortable position where you have to play the Grinch," Howard says. "We mitigate that before the garden even goes in the ground. We know who the group is, neighbors are comfortable with it...and then we can help you keep an eye on it as well."

The ordinance also clarifies the role Milwaukee’s Office of Neighborhood Services plays in the growing urban gardening scene.

Commissioner Art Dahlberg says the agency would address problems that arise. “Whether it be noise pollution from vehicles coming to the property, whether it be migration of dirt onto the streets, we have the tools to be able to address that,” Dahlberg says.

Alderwoman Milele Coggs urged her colleagues not to inhibit community gardens.

“In my district, the gardens have been used not just for the growing, but for the healing of community," Coggs says. "So I hope that as we begin to regulate it more that we also think outside the box of the role that gardens are able to play."

Groundwork Milwaukee'sMary Driscoll is euphoric that the city would allow growers to erect systems to catch rainwater - rather than relying on neighbors offering up their downspouts - and gardeners can build sheds.

“The thing that this provides is that you can have a structure with a roof on it so you have a place to get out of the sun and you can capture the rain off of that," Driscoll says. "This way gardens can be a little more independence."

Driscoll's organization is one of the urban agriculture groups that have been working toward this day for more than four years.

The plan was advanced on Tuesday and the full Common Council is slated to take up the urban agriculture zoning ordinance on May 13.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.