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D.C. Gardeners Weed Through Bureaucracy

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Liz Ball and her friend Josh Singer hope to transform the open green space into a community garden and orchard.
Jessica Gould
Liz Ball and her friend Josh Singer hope to transform the open green space into a community garden and orchard.

Some aspiring gardeners say the District is full of farmable land. The only challenge is figuring out who owns it.

The green space nestled between city streets doesn't look like much. Just a few trees, and grass that's patchy in parts. But, looking around, Liz Ball says she can see the future of urban farming. So she decided to make some calls.

Ball thought it would be as simple as attaining a few permits, but she discovered no one in the alphabet soup of D.C. agencies had any idea who owned the lands. From DDOT to DPR, to multiple city planners and commissioners, she says they had no idea.

Ball isn't alone. Ibti Vincent of the D.C. Urban Agriculture Coalition says a lot of local farmers face the same situation.

"There's just not a clear process for identifying and leasing land, either on a temporary basis or a long-term basis," says Vincent.

But she says fixing the problem is easy enough. Vincent says the city could employ a survey of availability of land, and assessment of suitability for urban agriculture process. In fact, the city of Baltimore did just that.

"We looked at all the vacant land in Baltimore City that is owned by the city," says Holly Freishtat, the city's food policy director.

After studying the land and soliciting applications, city leaders selected five farmers to cultivate a portion of the parcels. Freishtat said they wanted to be able to support their farmers and have great access to healthy affordable food.

Back in D.C., planners say they share that goal. And they expect the city's upcoming sustainability initiative will streamline the process. Ball certainly hopes so.

"We're going to go through some stacks and see property records from the 1960s to see if that can help us at all," says Ball. "It's been an adventure, but I hope in the future it'll be way easier for people."

She hoped to be cultivating crops by now. But she's digging into city records instead.

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