City’s Tax Structure Tough on Urban Agriculture

By DAVID FISHER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The Greenprint strategic plan has rather clear language on the city’s intention to increase the number of community gardens within the its limits, and points to three that have been started, on city property, in the past few years — in Elmwood on land rented to the Southside Community Land Trust, in Fox Point at Gano Park and at the corner of Sessions Street and Wayland Avenue.

While the Capital City can be commended for increasing residents’ access to public gardens, and in turn, access to locally grown fruits and vegetables, the city’s — some would say exorbitant — property taxes leave little recourse to residents wishing to buy or rent land within the city on which to grow food.

Earlier this year, Than Wood, a former apprentice at the Southside Community Land Trust’s City Farm, began renting a small plot of land on Westminster Street, and within a month, had transformed the vacant site of a former house fire into a thriving urban garden. He also utilizes the land as a center for his urban composting project.

Than pays a modest monthly rent, “probably amounting to less than even the (property) taxes,” he said. “I don’t know how long my landlord can keep up this arrangement.”

Individual property owners that would like to preserve urban agriculture on their property have few options. Most Rhode Island cities offer property tax abatements to owners of real estate that has been overvalued, disproportionately assessed or has had its zoning improperly classified. Unfortunately, few municipalities have agricultural zoning classes.

“My landlord has offered me a great price on the land,” Wood said, “but even if I could raise the funds to buy it, farming the land for profit wouldn’t even pay the taxes.”

Another option is to sell or lease such property to a land trust or another type of nonprofit.

Noel and Elizabeth Sanchez do just that. Their garden on the corner of Chapin Avenue and Sycamore Street is exempt from property taxes because it is leased to, and falls under the auspices of, the nonprofit South Side Community Land Trust. Elizabeth calls their corner lot “a nice little green spot in an extremely congested neighborhood.”

While the couple would like to sell the corner lot, they’d also like to preserve it as a garden and a community gathering spot. “We’ve had music there and other events, and sometimes people who don’t even grow there stop by and have lunch in the garden,” Elizabeth said.

They would be willing to let the lot go for about half of its assessed value to an organization that would preserve it as a garden. Selling it to any other entity or person would probably result in some structure being built on the property.

Urban gardens, like the ones grown by Wood and the Sanchez’s, are typically raised on vacant or derelict lots. By creating green space, inner-city gardens actually increase the value of abutting properties.

Urban gardens also increase the security of our food supply by reducing our carbon footprints and decreasing the chances of widespread, plant-specific blights. And let’s not discount the beneficial effects that all plants have on air, soil and water quality.

Agriculture is a major brick in the foundation of our society. Without its advent, we’d still be hunting, gathering and moving from cave to cave with the herds. We need to reconnect with and respect that foundation, and what better way than to see it every day?

Local urban farmers believe Providence needs to re-examine its zoning laws and tax codes to better invite community gardens and urban farms. Reduced property taxes and separate zoning designations for privately owned inner city farms, and purchasing and preserving vacant lots for community gardens and agriculture makes sense in a city that dares to have a “Greenprint” for its future.