New California Law Envisions a Brighter Future for Urban Agriculture

Ashley Pinkerton | 01.22.2014

In the US, much of the population lives far removed from the rural areas where most food is produced. But the expansion of ‘urban agriculture’ in recent years has begun deepening awareness and broadening popular participation in the food system by diverse communities. Without a doubt, urban food producers have now become a dynamic–and even politically influential–pillar of the broader food justice movement. In California, the pull of urban farmers can be seen in a new law recently passed by Governor Jerry Brown. Assembly Bill 551, also known as the Agricultural Incentive Zones Act, offers major tax incentives to landowners who lease their plots to urban farmers.

In California, one of the greatest challenges to urban farmers is land tenure. The cost of land in the Golden State is on the rise, especially in cities like San Francisco where big tech companies and rent-control loopholes like the Ellis Act have caused property values to rise 22 percent over the last three years. 1 With property values rising–making selling more attractive to landowners than leasing–leaseholders are not guaranteed the long-term agreements needed to properly develop land for lasting food production and a meaningful, long-term impact on community-based food systems.

With property values rising, leaseholders are not guaranteed the long-term agreements needed to properly develop land for lasting food production.

AB 551 promises to bolster urban agriculture by making land more accessible to urban farmers. For it to work, however, cities and counties must first “opt in,” after which landowners can enter into agreements with municipalities to devote parcels of land to small-scale agriculture and animal husbandry in vacant, unimproved and otherwise blighted plots in exchange for significant property tax breaks. 2 In some cases, urban land previously taxed at $6,000 per year, for example, could drop to rates as low as $600 according to one of the bill’s authors, Nicholas Reed. 3

Reed and co-author Juan Carlos Cancino first began research for the bill in 2008. With collaboration from California State Assemblyman Phil Ting, the San Francisco Urban Agriculture Alliance and the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), AB 551 passed unanimously in the Senate and by majority vote in the Assembly in 2013.

According to Reed, the inspiration for the law came from San Francisco’s Little City Farm, where urban farmers Brooke Budner and Caitlyn Galloway turned an empty ¾ acre plot of land into a thriving urban farm that sells produce to local restaurants throughout the city. Despite their success, they were constantly worried about what would happen if the owner decided to sell the land. While CA Proposition 13 froze property values at 1975 levels-thus discouraging property owners from selling- leaseholders remain vulnerable to increased rents if the owners do decide to sell. In contrast, AB 551 offers incentives for landowners to rent to farms like Little City and a minimum five-year lease that provides more land-tenure security for renters like Budner and Galloway.

Once the law comes into effect this month, cities and counties will be able to opt in, albeit with varying implementation procedures. In San Francisco for example, the Board of Supervisors–in agreement with the City Planning Department, Agricultural Commissioner and City Assessor–will need to pass a resolution declaring the city or county is opting into the Urban Agricultural Incentive Zone Act.

AB 551 is ground-breaking in encouraging urban agriculture that will strengthen social enterprise, environmental stewardship, city beautification, economic development, education, public health and community-based food systems. But the bill is also voluntary, so if the new law is to make any impact, the challenge is ensuring that cities and counties opt in. According to Reed, “People have to write their Supervisors, Agriculture Commissioners, put pressure on local politicians. We have to get the word out and express interest. People have to raise their voices if we want to feel a real impact.” 4

  1. Seligman, Katherine. “Evictions soar in San Francisco as real estate prices rise.” The Sacramento Bee, Nov. 28, 2013.
  2. Assembly Bill No. 551 text: Agriculture Incentive Zones; California Legislative Information
  3. Nicholas Reed, personal communication.
  4. Nicholas Reed, personal communication.