August 23, 2012

City Mulls Sale of Public Gardens

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At a meeting Wednesday that drew dozens of concerned residents, a committee of the Ithaca Common Council decided to postpone a vote to determine the fate of the Ithaca Community Gardens — leaving unsettled whether the land will be preserved for gardening or sold to a commercial developer.

The gardens sit alongside Route 13, on a city-owned piece of property near the Ithaca Farmer’s Market. They cover about two acres of land, divided into 150 plots on which community members can rent for a fee to grow their own gardens.

Project Growing Hope, which manages the gardens, has leased that space as part of an agreement with the city since 1993. Now, with the lease on the space set to expire at the end of 2013, the city must decide whether to renew the lease or to let it expire and sell the land, according to Common Council Member Seph Murtagh, Ph.D. ’09 (D-2nd Ward).

The land surrounding the gardens in a horseshoe-like ring is owned by private developers. Aeon Development owns the purchase option on the land inhabited by the gardens — meaning it has the right to buy the land from the City of Ithaca once the city decides to stop leasing it to the Community Gardens. The developers have no definite plans for the site if they choose to purchase the gardens.

But once the 1993 lease expires, the Common Council will have a choice to make: Renew its lease with Project Growing Hope, or sell the plot of land to Aeon for $90,000 for development.

The debate at Wednesday’s meeting was largely framed as one over enriching the community in one way — through preserving the common space provided by the gardens — versus increasing the city’s tax revenue by allow new businesses to build on the site.

According to Murtagh, the Common Council is under pressure to grow the number of taxpayers and to close the city’s budget gap. Still, he said he and other Council members were reluctant to move the gardens without a workable alternative location or an idea of the future of the Route 13 site under Aeon Development control.

“I understand that the need to expand the tax base is important given the city’s bleak financial outlook. However, we should be able to diversify our tax base while at the same time providing for the gardening needs that our city residents desire,” he said.

Supporters of the gardens described the conflict as a clash between people and profit, reminding council members of Ithaca’s reputation as a hub of green ideas and sustainability. Speakers pled with the Common Council to renew the lease, citing the value of the program to the community.

“The garden may not seem like much, but it’s one of those things that make Ithaca what it is –– a community that values its connection to the earth, a place where people from all walks of life from all over the world can connect with one another,” said Heidi Marschner, who tends a plot at the Community Gardens.

Others added that selling the land and forcing a relocation of the gardens  –– when an alternative location has yet to be determined –– would be unfair to gardeners who currently lease plots of land. One speaker, who has gardened at the spot for 25 years, said the space — which has been a fixture in Ithaca for about 30 years — has grown deep roots, literally and figuratively, in the community.

Though speakers emphasized that the gardens were more than just a space for producing food –– painting it as a place to share knowledge, stories and friendship –– a rare moment of humor momentarily diffused the tension in the room. To remind the audience of a reason to preserve the gardens, one Ithaca man pulled out a tomato that had been grown on the contested land and ate it.

Original Author: Emma Court