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Community gardens advance, despite challenges

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The local community garden movement got a boost earlier this month with the California Coastal Commission's approval to permit the plots in both commercial and residential areas.

In June 2011, the San Diego City Council voted to allowed the development of community gardens on vacant commercial and residential properties, but the new law didn’t include lands under the Coastal Commission’s purview.

Now those zones will be included, so long as they aren’t adjacent to wetlands or other sensitive areas.

The plots, most of which are less than an acre, may be acquired for a fee or they may be donated depending on location.

The produce may only be consumed by community members in some instances, while others have no such restrictions.

At some gardens, such as the Backyard Produce Garden in Poway, people are allowed to work the land with the understanding that all the produce will be donated.

In January 2012, community gardeners in residential zones were permitted to sell their produce once a week, according to Dan Normandin, a city of San Diego senior planner.

Before that, the gardeners only had been allowed to sell their produce in the city three times a year. Normandin added that it probably will be another 12 months before the Coastal Commission adopts the weekly provision.

Community gardeners in commercial zones are still able to sell their produce on a daily basis, whether they are in or out of the coastal zones, so long as they obtain a permit from the county Department of Agriculture.

Normandin suggested having a community garden is better for a property’s marketability, rather than letting weeds grow several feet high through the asphalt.

“It makes things easier. It’s not so hard to maintain as it would be if you just let [the vacant property] go,” he said, adding that it can be easy to start a garden.

But don’t tell that to Imperial Beach resident Jo Carr, who has worked to get a community garden in multiple locations in her city. One of those potential sites was at 10th Street and Donax Avenue.

Carr said because the property is zoned for low-income housing, it wasn’t possible to charge garden users anything for improvements, which ranged from satisfying Americans with Disabilities Act requirements to solar lighting to pumps and sprinklers for the irrigation.

Add liability insurance, and the total would have come to more than $210,000 that couldn’t be recovered.

Carr examined the possibility of putting a community garden next to Ream Field, but neighbors weren’t interested and the Navy said the site was needed for emergency vehicle access.

Another try at a community garden in Imperial Beach was made at Coronado Avenue and Saturn Boulevard, where a Catholic school was located.

The problems with that site were the liability issues, but perhaps more importantly, the development plans were too far along.

A group called IB Beautiful is examining at least one other prospective site at Imperial Beach Boulevard and Ninth Street. Carr seems more confident this time around.

“Negotiations are getting up and running,” Carr said, adding that ediblesandiego.com -- which promotes community gardens throughout the county -- is on board with the effort.

Carr and others also explored a site next to Imperial Beach Elementary and Mar Vista High School.

“It would have been great to incorporate [a community garden] into the school, but the school board refused to go along due to liability,” Carr said.

Other schools have found ways to make gardens work. Jenny Schmidt, school garden community coordinator for Dana Middle School in Point Loma, said the goal of her existing 2,000-square-foot school garden on city property is to expand it so it also becomes a community garden.

“It would be nice to get the community involved," Schmidt said. "If the community can use the space, that’s the whole idea.”

Schmidt said financial support by the Dana Association -- coupled with a cooperative school board, parents and others such as The Local Earth Collective -- are making the expansion possible.

Plans are now being drawn up for five tiers of 25-by-25-foot raised beds at the school.

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