Weigh in tonight on new Atlanta farmers market rules

Update: On Aug. 11, the city of Atlanta’s Zoning Review Board approved a proposed amendment to the zoning ordinance to allow farmers markets to operate on private property within city limits. On Aug. 31, the legislation will go before the City Council’s Zoning Committee. If that group votes to recommend approval, the legislation will go before the City Council for a final vote on Sept. 6.
Right in the middle of National Farmers Market Week, Atlanta officials are taking one more step toward making the city more farmers-market-friendly: with a public hearing tonight on proposed market regulations.

Technically speaking, the legislation would amend the city’s zoning ordinance. But the changes, if approved by City Council, would clear hurdles for would-be market organizers, streamline the permitting process, and establish standards for farmers markets held within the city’s boundaries.

“The community of Atlanta as a whole is very supportive of their local farmers markets, local food and putting more money into the Georgia economy—and giving the farmers markets a legitimate place within the city will be a great step forward,” says Lauren Carey, market manager for Peachtree Road Farmers Market.  

Nearly a year in the making, the legislation—a joint project between the city’s Office of Sustainability and the Office of Planning, drafted with assistance from market operators, farmers and Georgia Organics—has already been vetted by the Neighborhood Planning Units.

In essence, the proposed zoning ordinance changes define farmers markets as a unique business segment. Currently, all outdoor vendors—farmers markets, artists markets, sock salesmen—must renew their Special Administrative Permit, or SAP, every 90 days and can only operate on commercially zoned property. The new legislation distinguishes farmers markets from other outdoor vendors, extends the life of their SAP to a full year, and allows markets to operate on either commercially zoned property or residential property that is used by schools or places of worship (with permission, of course). It further requires that at least 75 percent of the inventory at farmers markets be either a farm product or be made from a farm product, and that at least 75 percent of the vendors be the producers of those products or agents of the producers. Vendors selling items they have not produced must identify the producer in 2-inch lettering.

The regulations represent a dramatic change in the way big cities like Atlanta deal with scrappy little startup farmers markets.

“We see that there’s a need for this, that this is a good thing for the city, the opportunity for communities to have access to fresh foods and to overall enhance the quality of life of residents,” says Enrique Bascuñana, principal planner with the city’s Office of Planning. “I think it’s also a change in mindset not just in Atlanta, but in other cities, from a few years ago. We’re really focused on healthier lifestyles and sustainability and going green. And in a way, it’s economic development too, because it’s locally encouraging mom-and-pop businesses.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the total number of farmers markets in the country has jumped 17 percent in the past year, to 7,175. In 1994, the first year it published its National Farmers Market Directory, the USDA counted 1,755 markets.

At tonight’s meeting, Bascuñana will present the legislation to the zoning review board. After board members’ questions are answered, the public will get a chance to comment. Because of the thorough vetting process, Bascuñana says he doesn’t anticipate much opposition. But just in case, local food advocates are asking residents to come out and support the presenters.

“We want to make sure we have at least as many supporters there” as any potential opposition, says Judith Winfrey of Slow Food Atlanta. “Then there’s the secondary goal of overwhelming the city with people who care about local food.”

If approved tonight by the zoning review board, the legislation would next go to Atlanta City Council Zoning Committee, which would make recommendations to the full council to either approve, modify or defer. Bascuñana hopes for final approval by late September or early October.

Tonight, it’s the public’s turn. The hearing begins at 6 p.m. in City Council chambers, on the second floor of the Atlanta City Hall annex, 55 Trinity Avenue.

More ways to celebrate National Farmers Market Week: Sure, zoning hearings are fun for the whole family. But why stop there? Area farmers markets are doing what they can to celebrate National Farmers Week, too. At the East Atlanta Village Farmers Market today from 4 to 8, sample free fried okra and bring a T-shirt for a free silk screen. At Grant Park Farmers Market on Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., enjoy free watermelon, and then let the kids compete in a watermelon seed-spitting contest.

Do you know of other area Farmers Market Week celebrations going on this weekend? Post them in the comments section below.

Image: East Atlanta Village Farmers Market