The D.C. City Council is considering legislation to establish a program to clean up the city's 20,000 vacant lots and help neighborhood groups interested in urban gardening gain access to privately owned land.
The development community and the Greater Washington Board of Trade have criticized the proposal, however, as an effort to take away private property rights. The bill is languishing in the D.C. Public Works Committee, despite support from six of the 13 City Council members.
Council member Frank Smith Jr. (D-Ward 1), the bill's sponsor, said the idea came to him as part of his effort to clean up the city.
"This city is just too dirty," Smith said. "As the nation's capital, we should hold ourselves to a higher standard. Most of these vacant lots are rubble-strewn eyesores that nobody pays attention to until the citizens get fed up and call the city government."
Smith said "hundreds" of people in the city would be willing to use vacant lots for raising flowers or vegetables, and would be willing to keep up vacant lots as part of an effort to make their neighborhoods more liveable.
Proposed as the Urban Food and Garden and Vacant Lot Review Commission Act, the measure would establish a vacant-lot review commission charged with keeping track of all vacant lots in the city.
Private owners of vacant lots who did not have plans to use a lot within 12 months would be required to register it with the city. Property owners also would be required to submit development plans to the city, so the vacant-lot commission would be able to advise citizens on the future of specific parcels.
Smith said the proposal would not require property owners to make their land available for gardens, but simply would establish a clearinghouse of vacant lots to assist neighborhood groups in identifying owners of such property. A group that was interested in using a specific parcel would have to reach an agreement with the property owner.
The program would be coordinated by the Cooperative Extension Service of the University of the District of Columbia, which already runs an urban gardens program.
Developers and business groups in Washington have complained, however, that the proposal would require developers to make public development plans that they consider trade secrets.
Developers said they also are wary of opening up land for public use if they plan to build on the land in the near future, citing cases in which neighborhood groups have fought to retain access to private land or to block development of a parcel once they have been allowed to use the land.
"The Board of Trade questions the need for a project of this magnitude," said Jon Farmer, a zoning attorney with Wilkes Artis Hedrick and Lane who testified against the bill at a public hearing last fall. "There is no evidence that the inventory of publicly owned land cannot satisfy the demand for urban gardens. It is our belief that no project affecting private land should begin until all the available publicly owned land has been exhausted."
Smith said, however, that publicly owned land is not always accessible to neighborhood residents.
"We are trying to make gardening available to people who live in apartments," Smith said. "There are 1,500 people on a waiting list for an urban garden up on 14th Street. Obviously, there are people in all neighborhoods interested in finding space to garden."
Another complaint from property owners is that they would have to get liability insurance to protect themselves from claims if someone is hurt using their land.
Smith said, however, that the extension service program already requires gardening groups to get their own liability insurance, and that the same requirement would extend to gardening groups organized with the support of the vacant-lot commission.
The bill would establish a 15-member vacant-lot commission, including seven official members and eight public members appointed by Mayor Marion Barry.
If there is enough support in City Council for the proposal, the bill probably will move to the full council this spring. If it is passed, owners of private property would be required to register their vacant lots with the city within 30 days and to submit a development plan and timetable within three months.