Neighbors line up to block farm plan
More than 100 neighbors in Roxborough and Whitemarsh township filled the auditorium of the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education last week to voice their concerns over the creation of 10 commercial farming plots on Manatawna Farm, which straddles Upper Roxborough and Whitemarsh Township.
Community members raised questions about the project, ranging from the protection of natural habitats to maintenance and oversight of the plots. The plan is part of Mayor Michael Nutter’s citywide initiative, Greenworks Philadelphia, a plan to “remake how the city consumes energy, handles trash and nurtures green space,” according to its website.
Joan Blaustein, director of environment, stewardship and education for the Department of Parks and Recreation, and representatives of Natural Lands Trust presented the City’s preliminary draft plan for the parcel of land. The plans would have to be adopted by Whitemarsh Township and the city before going into effect, Blaustein said.
The plan includes the acquisition of up to five acres of the Manatawna property, which will be divided into 10 half-acre plots, to be used for commercial, chemical-free farming. The land will come out of 50 acres that were previously dedicated to hay production by W.B. Saul High School of Agricultural Science and community gardening by Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, according to Blaustein.
In attendance at the meeting were representatives from several political offices, including that of Councilman Curtis Jones, who, according to David O’Neil, a member of the Roxborough Conservancy and Friends of Manatawna Farm, has taken the cause under his wing.
In June, Jones drafted a proposed ordinance for City Council that would protect the Manatawna Farm as well as Saul School’s interest in the land. The proposed ordinance would establish zoning for a Roxborough Environmental Control District, which would provide protection for the Saul School’s hay and livestock program and needed habitat and wildlife protection.
“We cannot afford to lose these opportunities that establish greater social connections in our neighborhood while also preserving the space for future generations to connect to the Schuylkill River Valley and to enjoy cultivation and food harvest,” Jones wrote in an e-mail to the Local.
O’Neil said Jones had also been working with the community to identify other more suitable areas for an urban agricultural initiative.
For the Manatawna Farms project to continue, the Department of Parks and Recreation must meet with Jones to discuss the ordinance. Blaustein said she does not believe Jones was fully aware of the intentions of the plan when the legislation was drafted.
“We have given him lots of information to clarify some of the misconceptions,” Blaustein said. “We want to work with him to see if we can come up with a compromise that will keep Saul School there, the community gardens, the 4H … we believe they can all happen on the same site without disadvantage to anyone.”
Community members have come together into several organizations in order to express their concerns about the land use. East33.org creator and concerned neighbor Christina Kobland’s main concerns are for the natural wildlife habitats in the area being disturbed, not necessarily by the agriculture, but by proposed trails that may accompany the plots.
“I live near here – I know what an important habitat it is,” she said. “The trails will fragment habitats. Whenever you have trails into habitats, sensitive species are affected by that. Our big feet don’t need to go everywhere.”
Representatives from the Saul School were in attendance, and a letter from Scott Moser, a faculty member at Saul and a parent, was read aloud at the meeting. In his letter, Moser thanked Jones for the proposed legislation and said he believed the project would adversely affect the programs at Saul and would be better suited to a different location.
O’Neil said he had met the teachers and students at Saul School, one of the oldest agricultural high schools in the United States, and was impressed by their passion. The school is already working to be “green” and benefit the community, he said.
O’Neil, who worked with the Reading Terminal years ago and other urban farming initiatives around the country, said the Manatawna plan is not what urban agriculture is all about.
“Urban agriculture is about involving people in the production of food and the improvement of a place,” O’Neil said. “It’s not just about raising vegetables - it’s about benefiting the community beyond just a piece of food. With 40,000 vacant lots in the city of Philadelphia, why take a place that is already green and degrade it.”
The Department of Parks and Recreation, Blaustein said, considers Manatawna Farm to be the best site for this project, with its close proximity to the Saul School farm on Henry Avenue. Blaustein said it could also provide an opportunity for the Saul School students to be able to learn about the type of small-scale commercial farming the city is trying to develop.
Another major concern for Kobland, as well as others, is the maintenance and regulation of the land once it is part of the Greenworks Philadelphia initiative. The concern arises from existing conditions since neighbors and visitors to Manatawna Farms are unhappy with the dilapidated conditions of garden plots in the park.
“When they can’t manage what they already have, how are they going to manage this additional commercial agriculture?” Kobland said.
It is with a grant from the William Penn Foundation, in the amount of $120,000, that the Department of Parks and Recreation plans to create
the infrastructure needed for the farms, according to Blaustein.
Blaustein explained that each plot would be leased out to farmers who provide an adequate crop and market plan. The lease will outline rules that will be enforced by the department’s Property and Concessions Management staff, which already oversees leases throughout the department. Also, there will be a licensing fee, along with the department’s operating budget, which can be used for unforeseen maintenance in the future, Blaustein said.
One arm of Greenworks Philadelphia has been the Mayor’s Wednesday farmer’s markets at Love Park throughout the summer, with the help of groups like McCann’s Farm, Teens4Good, Penn State Extension and La Baguette, according to the website.
Land has also been made available to Greenworks Philadelphia in the areas of 9th and Norris streets, according to the website. Although the plot farmers will not be required to use this farmer’s market, it is one option that is available to them.
“With some serious commitment to making this work,” Blaustein said, “we can satisfy all needs.