Bilali Muya and Johora Musa swing their hoes rhythmically, voraciously churning up earth. Musa isn't hampered by her mossy green headscarf, purple-striped wrap or orange-flowered dress rustling in the dirt. The Somali Bantu couple work swiftly, like they're sowing the fields in rural Africa—but this is just a trash-strewn strip of wild grass and weeds in City Heights. The refugees are hungry to grow pumpkin, kale, corn and cowpeas. They crave fresh produce for their three children, a dinner table full of culturally familiar foods and a reconnection to their fast-fading agrarian roots.
“The community farm is one of the most important things we've been doing back since our great, great, great grandparents,” Muya said in his exuberant East African accent. “If you're not a farmer in the family, you are nothing.”
Muya and his family made a life in San Diego, after war in Somalia forced them into neighboring Kenya and finally to the United States. He's cleared brush, worked security, found office jobs to get by—but always felt called back to the land.
So, he and his wife were overjoyed to learn of an emerging neighborhood garden—the New Roots Community Farm spearheaded by the nonprofit International Rescue Committee. They got on the waiting list, flush with immigrants who had farmed in their native lands of Somalia, Cambodia and Mexico. Even from the beginning, there were 120 families vying for 80 slots.
But that was almost two years ago. And the land is still barren—2.3 acres of open space squeezed in between 54th Street and Chollas Parkway, stuck for many months in rolls of red tape. The Somali Bantu family, it seems, will have to wait longer.
While immigrants queue up, the IRC has plowed through a different terrain: the San Diego Municipal Code, with its mountains of land-use regulations. The nonprofit group never thought it would spend $46,000 to get permits for an organic garden on the stretch of unused, city-owned land. They figured people are struggling, global markets are unstable, government coffers are dry—the city surely would want folks to farm the land, in the name of food security.
“We have 800,000 hungry people in this county, we have park-deficient neighborhoods that lack green space and a Park and Recreation Department that is broke,” said Ellee Igoe, IRC's food security manager. Even with her master's degree in urban planning, Igoe says it's simply too onerous to get a green light for something as simple, and green, as a garden.
“The process is too laborious for anyone to navigate, let alone someone who doesn't speak English as their first language,” Igoe said.
She laments that the system—with its city reviews, environmental studies, landscaping consultations and site-plan development—seems to run counter to common sense. And the tab, paid by Price Charities, Union Bank and government grants, has left the small agency devoted to resettling refugees with an empty till for garden necessities.
IRC picked the skinny triangular lot abutting Chollas Creek because it's in the heart of the City Heights refugee community. The Muya family could walk there. The nonprofit says it first contacted the city in May 2007 and applied for a neighborhood use permit in November 2007. Anyone wanting to start a community garden in a residential or commercial zone needs one. So do restaurants, bars, parking lots and outpatient medical clinics. The permit is required by the municipal code, which aims to buffer surrounding properties and protect public health.
“If someone is proposing a community garden next to your house or business, you'd probably want adequate safeguards for lighting, runoff from water, irrigation, fertilizers, hours of operation, that sort of thing, so it doesn't turn into a commercial operation,” said Gary Geiler, the senior planner who supervised New Roots for the city's Development Services Department.
The IRC thought the $2,000 application fee seemed a bit steep. Then, in January 2008, the nonprofit learned it also needed a site-development permit, with an initial $5,000 charge for the city's review. Next came bills for a slew of studies, like a water-quality report, required for the permits.
“The site they chose had significant, severe environmental constraints on it,” Geiler said. “If they had chosen a different site, then they probably wouldn't have gone through these hoops.”
The parcel is in a floodplain, Geiler said. There are wetlands and biological resources—breeding grounds for endangered birds like the California gnatcatcher.
IRC Director Bob Montgomery figured: Environmental protections, fair enough. But he questions being held to the same standard as someone opening a business, when all they would build is a tool shed and a palapa for shade. “The city was treating us like a developer,” Montgomery said. “It was almost like we were trying to build a condominium.”
The group won over District 7's then-City Councilmember Jim Madaffer. With his help, the city waived certain requirements—cement-paved sidewalks and $10,000 street lights, for instance. In a Nov. 24, 2008, memo to the City Council, Madaffer asked for a streamlined and cheaper permit process for community gardens. He argued the current “regulations go beyond reasonable,” especially when the city endorsed the growth of urban farms in its General Plan last March.
But Madaffer is termed out. And the council's Land Use and Housing Committee (LU&H) didn't hear his request to create a garden permit process last year. The incoming LU&H Chair, Councilmember Todd Gloria, told CityBeat the item is on his list of priorities. “It's a great way to take underperforming land, use and reactivate it,” Gloria said. “I think it's something worthy to study for the City Council.”
Agreed, said new District 7 Councilmember Marti Emerald, a self-described garden fan, who herself tended plots in Pacific Beach and Normal Heights. “I don't think the process should be nearly so onerous,” said Emerald, who wants to work with Gloria to make city principles match city practices.
Bilali Muya and Johora Musa feel a great need, as they scrimp to feed a family of five at Food 4 Less. They would prefer farming their own produce, not just as a source of pride but financial necessity.
“I would plant tomatoes and sweet potatoes,” Musa said, her black eyes sparkling and her gold earrings dangling. “We could also sell them and get money,” Musa said, describing plans to take leftover produce to the City Heights Farmers Market, a bit sparse on locally grown harvests.
Brian Pollard believes city dwellers—some who have never seen a vegetable in the ground—need to get dirty and see how green things grow. He's trying to launch the New Village Community Garden in Southeast San Diego, in collaboration with elementary schools and Lincoln High. Pollard's been combing the streets for locations. He found what seemed the perfect blighted parcel in Encanto, until he realized it was city-owned.
“The dilemma is that we hear all the positive things from the city, but, in reality, the process is deterring everybody,” he said.
Even Kelly Broughton, who runs the city's Development Services Department, wonders, “Hey, why does this need to be that complicated?” When the city updated its municipal code between 1993 and 2000, his department suggested an easier process. But Broughton recalls citizens asking, “Is it just going to be a dumping ground for some weekend warriors?”
Ultimately, the City Council didn't waive the neighborhood use permit for community gardens, on public or private land. The council didn't even allow them in some types of commercial and residential zones, like single-family neighborhoods. Broughton says that's where it stands, unless he gets new direction from the council.
IRC finally got the permits for New Roots, but the group wants to spare other garden enthusiasts such a grueling campaign. They're lobbying to make San Diego garden-friendly. Think Portland, Philadelphia or New York City, with its 600 municipal gardens, they suggest. San Diego only has two gardens that are permitted, Geiler said.
But that's not yet the end of IRC's story or the beginning of the New Roots farm. They need money to grow the garden—buy seeds, sprinklers, a shed and a fence. IRC has been promised more than $60,000 in Community Development Block Grants, but those come with legal issues and a new round of surveys from the federal government—an even more daunting bureaucracy, they fear.
IRC's permits are only valid for three years, which means time is ticking on the still-unproductive land. Bilali Muya and Johora Musa can't continue their ground-breaking until the money comes, from whatever source. They hope to plant seeds soon, as Muya lost his job and the family is relying on $300 a month in food stamps.
The Somali Bantus were given a plot of land by the government back home, and that was all. They cultivated crops and sold them to buy other goods, like kerosene, grain and meat. Ironically, in the U.S., they're given free food but pay a steep price to farm the land.
The Land Use and Housing Committee will discuss the garden permit process on Wednesday, Jan. 21, at 2 p.m. in the Council Committee Room at City Hall, 202 C St. The meeting is open to the public. Something to say? Got a story idea? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.