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Protecting Community Gardens: There Oughta Be a Law

On April 25th, 2000, Council Members Kenneth Fisher (D-Brooklyn), Adolfo Carrion (D- Bronx) and Gifford Miller (D-Manhattan) introduced legislation in the City Council (Int. No. 742 and 743) that would help protect New York’s community gardens.

The legislation-based on a proposal drafted by the MAS and several greening organizations-would implement a citywide policy encouraging the preservation of existing gardens and the creation of new gardens. It would establish a planning process to ensure a balance throughout New York City between residential development and much-needed open space. In particular, it would encourage the City to develop its 11,000 vacant lots before looking toward community garden sites.

The MAS has long been concerned about the void in City policy regarding community gardens, resulting in needless conflict with gardeners-most dramatically, the proposed auction of more than 100 gardens in May 1999. The proposed new legislation would introduce a rational, balanced planning process, alleviating the misperception that community gardens and housing are mutually exclusive.

Major points of the legislation include:

  • Designation of “community gardens” in the IPIS database of all City-owned property and other City documents. (Community gardens are currently listed merely as “vacant lots.”)
  • New two-year leases for all existing community gardens, and the opportunity for two-year leases for new gardens. (All garden leases were revoked in 1998 when the community gardens were transferred from the Parks Department to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development.)
  • The opportunity for preservation of existing community gardens through transfer either to the Parks Department or a land trust.
  • Requirement that all development proposals for community garden sites go through ULURP, rather than the abbreviated UDAP, which does not provide sufficient public input and review.
  • A process for alternative site negotiations between gardens and the City if a community garden is approved for development.
  • A City Council fund that would support community gardens, providing money for site development, maintenance and programming.

Update: A longstanding lawsuit brought against the City by Attorney General Eliot Spitzer continues to protect threatened community gardens in the short term. The Attorney General secured an injunction against any development of community gardens until the case is resolved. In the lawsuit, the Attorney General claims that an EIS must be prepared before any gardens can be sold or developed, and further argues that their disposition is prohibited because they are de facto parkland under state law.

The injunction provides a temporary reprieve for the gardens, but this case is further testimony to the need for an official planning process for garden sites. As the situation currently stands, no one is well served: development projects are held up, even when compromises between gardeners and developers have been reached. Community gardeners are constantly on pins and needles about the fate of their gardens. If a rational planning process is implemented, projects could go forward where appropriate, and hundreds of community gardens could continue to thrive without the looming threat of bulldozers.