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Pittsburgh officials may rein in urban agriculture

| Monday, March 1, 2010

Just as urban beekeeping, community gardening and raising poultry gains traction across the country, Pittsburgh leaders are considering limiting such agricultural practices.

That means Jana Thompson would have to remove the beehives and chicken coop she keeps at her North Side duplex.

"What the city is proposing would make everything I do illegal," said Thompson, who lives in the Mexican War Streets. She keeps three beehives on her roof and a chicken coop and 20 fruit trees in her yard.

The city Planning Commission, which meets March 16, is reviewing a proposed ordinance that would require city dwellers to locate beehives at least 15 feet from any property line. Among other things, the ordinance would enact expensive fees, said Julie Pezzino, executive director of Grow Pittsburgh, a Point Breeze organization that promotes urban agriculture.

"It is a good ordinance in many ways," she said, but "a $300 fee to have a chicken coop in a backyard is a bit much."

Urban farming is not new; World War II-era Victory gardens were an expression of patriotism and a reaction to rationing of gasoline and food.

But urban farming appears to be gaining popularity, and the city doesn't regulate it. The proposed ordinance is a draft, and city officials are studying practices elsewhere in the country, said Joanna Doven, spokeswoman for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

"Anytime you see something growing and expanding and there are no rules, you need to regulate it," she said.

Chris McGuigan of Troy Hill, a health policy analyst with University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, began raising chickens in the yard of his Victorian home last summer.

McGuigan suspects growing interest in organic food helped make urban agriculture become more widespread.

"There's more awareness of where food comes from," McGuigan said. "I think the economic downturn has also gotten more people interested."

Beekeeper Meredith Grelli, of the nonprofit organization Burgh Bees, thinks the city's regulation would shut down two of its four apiaries, in Hazelwood and Mt. Washington. The organization has beehives in Braddock and at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, as well.

The ordinance would require that each hive be located on 2,500 square feet of land, which would eliminate typical Pittsburgh rowhouses, Grelli said.

"We want to promote safe beekeeping," she said. "We were not consulted at all about this. We want to work with the city."

It might seem illogical but urban settings can provide bees with better nutrition than many rural areas, said Michael S. Thompson, farm manager for the Chicago Honey Co-Op, a farm consisting of more 100 beehives at a parking lot in Chicago's West Side.

"Cities are as natural as many other parts of the world," he said. "There is more, and higher quality, honey in cities because there are very few pesticides used and a variety of plants."

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