College Park Farmer’s Market. Image by Prince George’s County Planning Department.

Agriculture in Prince George’s County has historically played an especially important role in the local culture and economy. However, regulatory barriers have made it difficult for many residents, especially those in urban and suburban areas, to grow food and access local produce. Now the county’s ongoing zoning rewrite could change that.

The proposed zoning updates do a better job of accommodating urban and suburban agriculture, and ease restrictions on the production of locally-grown food. Changes include allowing permanent farmers’ markets, giving farmers more flexibility to sell their products, and permitting farms in more places.

Farmer at a community farm in Mitchellville. Image by the author.

Here’s why the county has such a special connection to agriculture

Prince George’s unique position among the Patuxent, Potomac, and Anacostia rivers provides some of the most fertile land in the region, and has contributed to the area’s long and rich agricultural history.

As a result, the county boasts some impressive agricultural research facilities. These include the state’s flagship university, the University of Maryland at College Park which has its roots as the Maryland Agricultural College, as well as the world’s largest agricultural research complex, the Henry A. Wallace Beltsville Agricultural Research Center (locally known as the Beltsville Farm).

Three years after the County’s first zoning ordinance was adopted, the 1950 United States Census of Agriculture reported that there were 2,130 farms in the County sitting on more than 310,400 acres of land. However, the County’s focus on agriculture has shifted over the past sixty years to accommodate increasing the population and changes in the types of employment.

Today, the County’s agricultural landscape includes 347 farms covering 32,607 acres, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture. The lack of locally-grown food has had significant impact on the food system in the county. Many residents have to travel long distances to access their nearest grocery store.

Urban agriculture has emerged as a valuable approach to help spur local food production and food access. Prince George’s is looking to continue its urban agriculture momentum by reducing regulatory land-use barriers through the ongoing rewrite of the county’s zoning code.

Instructions for composting shared at a Prince George’s County based community garden. Image by the author.

The proposed zoning rewrite boosts urban agriculture in Prince George’s

Prince George’s proposed separating urban agriculture into two distinct uses: urban farms and community gardens. Community gardens would be permitted by-right in all zones, which means no special permission is needed to install them. They are designed for family or community agriculture, and is not sold for profit.

Urban farms are seen more as agricultural enterprises, and can be operated by either a nonprofit or private business. Urban farm activities include the cultivation of fruits, vegetables, or flowers, as well as composting, beekeeping, and agricultural education. Urban farms would also be allowed by-right in all areas except the Transit-Oriented Zones.

This is a significant change from today’s ordinance, where urban farms are prohibited from the county’s mixed-use, commercial, and industrial zones.

By allowing urban farms in more places, there is a greater opportunity for entrepreneurs to find the right location to make urban farming a feasible endeavor. This also boosts emerging agricultural practices such as aquaponics and hydroponics. It could also catalyze the revitalization of vacant industrial properties or abandoned golf courses.

Prince George’s County employees tour ECO City’s Bladensburg Farm during an Urban Agriculture tour in the County. Image by Prince George’s County Planning Department.

The proposed ordinance maintains recently-adopted legislation for maintaining and operating urban farms. It also incorporates new regulations to ensure that non-farm development continues to be compatible with neighboring properties.

These regulations include a 50-foot buffer and lot configuration requirements that are designed to help protect agriculture from unintended consequences of new development or nuisance complaints from next door neighbors.

The zoning rewrite also improves local food distribution

In addition to bolstering local food production, the draft ordinance also looks at providing more opportunities for local food distribution. Farmers’ markets are permitted in all zones by-right (again, which means they don’t need special permission) as a temporary use for 106 days, or about two days a week each year.

Also, permanent farmers’ markets are now allowed, including indoor farmers markets that are accessory to any use in all high-density residential, nonresidential, transit oriented zones. This is a substantial improvement over today’s code, where farmers’ markets, are only allowed 50 days out of the year.

Furthermore, the county is proposing more opportunities for local urban farms to market their goods directly to the public through a Produce Stand use. This is similar to a farmers’ market, but allows customers to buy goods directly from the farm property.

By introducing more flexibility for a farmer to sell their products, these new uses make local and urban farming more feasible.

Port Towns Youth Council students and parents volunteer at the Cottage City Community Garden. Image by the author.

Most importantly, grocery stores or food markets have been categorized independently of consumer goods establishments. This provides the county the opportunity to more nimbly incentivize the establishment of grocery stores in our underserved communities.

Finally, the proposal takes a huge leap forward by allowing shared commercial kitchens as catering or food processing for offsite consumption as an accessory use to a place of worship private school, or community-oriented association.

Would you like to offer suggestions on these changes? There is still time to weigh in on the draft ordinance. The Prince George’s County Planning Department is accepting comments through December 15, 2017.