Community gardens sprout up in East Valley cities - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Community gardens sprout up in East Valley cities

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Posted: Thursday, July 7, 2011 3:21 pm | Updated: 3:43 pm, Fri Jul 8, 2011.

For decades, cities figured that progress meant getting rid of agricultural land and replacing it with houses and businesses.

But several East Valley cities are rethinking the urban-only mindset by allowing - and even encouraging - gardens to sprout in their downtowns and elsewhere.

The shift in philosophy is partly a reaction to the recession, which has left plenty of vacant land that's unlikely to develop soon. Communities also see demand growing for fresh, locally-grown produce sought by individuals, restaurants and nonprofits.

But starting a community garden wasn't easy in some places. In Tempe, the city generally wouldn't allow developed land to revert to agricultural use. The city is moving to change that, hoping gardens will spring up on some empty downtown lots or within city parks.

Tempe Councilwoman Onnie Shekerjian has worked to encourage gardens because she believes uncertain times make people crave a simpler, more sustainable lifestyle. Residents tend the gardens themselves and some involved with a south Tempe plot have found other benefits, Shekerjian said.

"They're shocked at how they got to know people," Shekerjian said. "It's the community building that has become more important than the fresh vegetables."

The city is testing gardens on city-owned land, turning over 15,000 square feet of land at Escalante Park to the Tempe Community Action Agency. That nonprofit started the garden this spring and splits food between neighbors who volunteer, the agency's food pantry and selling produce at a farmer's market to generate revenue.

The garden allows the agency to distribute healthier food to needy families, said Beth Fiorenza, the agency's executive director.

"Having the free fruit and vegetables really guarantees that families are getting a nutritious supplement, that it's not all canned goods," she said.

A new Tempe ordinance will allow gardens on private lots, with a $50 fee and hearing involving neighboring property owners.

Shekerjian figures there's enough interest in several neighborhoods to establish gardens within parks. These gardens would be overseen by a nonprofit that would provide funding and manage the project with neighbors. The city's role will be limited to playing matchmaker between residents and nonprofits, Shekerjian said.

Mesa made sure community gardens were included in a recent revamp of zoning regulations, said Christine Zielonka, development and sustainability director. Lots of up to one acre can become gardens in residential and commercial areas. Mesa does not require permits or fees as a way to encourage gardens on unused land.

"One would hope that over time vacant parcels will become more valuable and they'll have a more beneficial use, so certainly a community garden would be a wonderful transitional use for that property rather than let it sit vacant," Zielonka said.

Mesa is looking to establish a garden downtown on one of the many vacant lots it owns. The city wants to open it this fall, having a nonprofit work with neighbors to get it going.

About $10,000 from the Chandler Kiwanis Club will establish a garden that will distribute produce to volunteers and to the Chandler Christian Community Center. Harvest for Humanity will manage the garden, and one of its missions is to teach people how to grow their own food, said Denise Phillips, executive director.

There's an increased interest in growing food locally in part because of e-coli outbreaks and food recalls, she said.

"People are looking for ways to save money and ways to be in control of what they're eating," Phillips said, "and it tastes so much better."

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