Photo courtesy Grow Pittsburgh.

City Planning Commission yesterday voted unanimously to approve changes to the zoning code governing urban agriculture, making it easier for residents to grow food and keep chickens, bees and goats on their properties.

The new code creates a transparent process for an over-the-counter permit for urban agriculture. The permit costs $70, instead of $300, and must be approved by the City of Pittsburgh’s Zoning Division. Applications for urban farms, bees, chickens and ducks, goats and vegetable sales must include a site plan showing proper square footage and distances from property boundaries.

Urban agriculture enthusiasts have struggled to play by the rules since 2009, says Julie Butcher Pezzino, executive director of Grow Pittsburgh, when there weren’t any rules to play by.

“Nothing was really on the books, and as a result, everything was illegal,” she says.

In 2011, the city adopted code that was intended to protect urban farming and husbandry. But holes in the language made the permitting process arduous and expensive, and still left people vulnerable to nuisance law, says Stephen Repasky, president of Burgh Bees.

“It’s hard enough to keep chickens and bees and grow a good garden,” he says. “But then when you throw in the chance that before you even get started you get shot down, even with code in place, it’s frustrating.”

Pittsburgh urban growers basically went underground, says Pezzino, until Mayor-elect Bill Peduto addressed Grow Pittsburgh’s Urban Agriculture and Public Policy Symposium in December 2013.

“He said, ‘I know that this code is flawed, and I know it’s not working for you. So come up with some changes, rewrite it if you have to and work with the planning department,’” says Pezzino. “The game-changer was this new administration.”

Both Repasky and Pezzino said it’s difficult to estimate just how big the urban agriculture community is, because people have shied away from the permitting process.

“For gardening I can tell you there’s over 80 community gardens just in Allegheny County and there’s probably more than that,” said Pezzino. “We’ve never really done a survey of backyard gardeners, but we know from national data that this is a growing movement—no pun intended—and that’s unlikely to end any time soon.”

Urban agriculture contributes to a city’s well being, and Pezzino said she’s excited to see what residents will do with the greenlight of the new code.

“The benefits are significant: community self-sufficiency, economic development, food security, food justice-related benefits, community beautification—all of those things tie into urban growing.”

Repasky added that the value of keeping honeybees in backyards is worth millions of dollars in crop production.

“If you’re eating, you’ve got to thank a honeybee.”

Roughly twenty attendees voiced support for the changes before they were quickly approved by the commission. The proposed code must still be approved by City Council before it becomes law.

Margaret J Krauss

Margaret J. Krauss is a writer, radio producer, and researcher. If not biking Pittsburgh's streets or swimming its rivers, she is likely geeking out about a really good story.