#4 Land Access and Tenure

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Land Access
Lack of accessible land can be one of the greatest constraints to urban farming, and finding growing space often requires creativity on the part of urban farmers. Empty lots, utility rights of way, private backyards, parks, institutional land (schools, hospitals, churches, prisons, universities, senior homes), and rooftops are all examples of vacant land that might be reclaimed for agricultural use.
Upon seeing vacant land with agricultural potential, urban farmers should take note of the street addresses on either side of the site and cross streets of the block.  With this information, farmers can check with local tax assessors and Departments of Finance to view tax maps and property records to determine the site parcel number.  This number will allow farmers to look up the site’s ownership history and most recent owner, who can then be contacted to discuss use of the land.
The Essential Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter and Willow Rosenthal (Penguin Books, 2011) provides additional information on locating, contacting, and communicating with property owners and purchasing vacant land.
Land Banks
New York State has recently passed legislation to enable cities to establish land banks to manage vacant land.  Check with your local city government to see if your city has a land bank, and if so, gather information what properties are available, their zoning designations and land use histories, and any special programs to encourage their purchasing.  For example, Syracuse maintains an online list of available city-owned properties and purchasing incentives at https://www.syr.gov/Departments/NBD/Business-Development/Buy-Property-from-the-City.
Land Tenure
Though outright purchase of land is preferred, land values, particularly in urban centers, are often prohibitively high.  As such, many urban farmers resort to long-term contractual agreements and lease agreements, outlined above.
If unable to secure a long-term lease, consider using temporary or moveable cultivation practices, such as growing in raised beds or containers and using temporary structures such as hoop houses.  The Garden State Urban Farm in Newark, New Jersey, for example, uses an entirely portable farming system called Earth Boxes (see Factsheet #12, Container Gardening).
To protect urban farmland, consider partnering with a land trust.  Land trusts are non-profit organizations that actively work to conserve land, such as by their stewardship of land through purchase, lease, or easements.  More information on land trusts and a listing of land trusts by state is available from the Land Trust Alliance at https://landtrustalliance.org/
Land-Linking Services
There are some recent efforts to make land more accessible to urban farmers, such as:

  • The Open Accessible Space Information System (OASIS) in New York City, provides maps of land use patterns including open spaces, property information, transportation networks and more, in an effort to help individuals and groups better understand their environments can be found at http://www.oasisnyc.net/
  • 596 acres in New York City that helps individuals connect with vacant land in their community through a variety of services, including making municipal information available through an online interactive map of city-owned vacant land, and consulting services for people in New York City and in other cities interested in starting projects on vacant land.  Visit http://596acres.org/ for more information.

Land Use Agreements
In most instances, urban farmers will lease or otherwise use land under contractual agreement, rather than outright ownership.  In such cases, creating a land use agreement can lessen property owner concerns and improve the likelihood that s/he will permit urban farming on the site.  The Urban Agricultural Legal Resource Library, a project of the Sustainable Economies Law Center, outlines important elements of land use agreements for both public and private land and sample land use agreements, at https://urbanaglaw.org/.
Government Land
Housing Authorities Transportation Departments or Authorities can also serve as sources of land for urban farmers.  In New York City, for example, the NYC Housing Authority is planning a 1-2 acre farm site on government land.  Information on this project is available at http://www.nyc.gov/html/nycha/html/community/garden.shtml.
ChangeLab Solutions Dig, Eat and Be Healthy: A Guide to Growing Food on Public Land offers more general guidelines for engaging with government entities to gain access to public land: http://www.changelabsolutions.org/sites/default/files/Dig_Eat_and_Be_Happy_FINAL_20130610_0.pdf
Rooftop Access
There is no formal process to link urban farmers with building owners.  Most successful rooftop farmers simply approach individual property owners until they find someone who is willing to host a project.  It is important to recognize that not all buildings can support of the weight of a farm or garden project, and certain structural considerations must be taken into account.  See Factsheet #13, Roof Top Farming, for more information and resources.
Sample Lease Agreement
This simple lease agreement is a starting point.  Additional sample lease agreements and more information about leasing are available from Land for Good at http://www.landforgood.org/resources.html.  For more detailed leases, consult an attorney.
This lease is entered in this ____day of______________between___________________, landlord, and ______________________________, tenant.  The landlord leases to the tenant to use for agricultural purposes_________acres of pasture and _______acres of cropland, and the following building: (list or attach a list) located in the Town of ____________ and County of____________ and commonly known as __________Farm.
The tenant will pay the landlord $________per year (or other specified time period) with payment to be made as follows:_______________________________.  The tenant will also pay all the costs of planting, growing and harvesting crops grown on the land.  The tenant will be required to maintain and repair fences, tile drains, and diversion ditches, and make ordinary repairs to maintain buildings and equipment used, and pay for utilities such as electricity and water (if relevant) during the period of the lease.  The landlord will pay the taxes, fire insurance on buildings, major repairs or improvements, such as new fence, ponds, drain tiles, diversion ditches, etc.
The tenant will follow recommended conservation and agronomic practices in working the land.  No green or growing timber may be harvested from the property by the tenant. The landlord has the right to inspect or enter the property at any time.
may be adjusted annually to account for increases in taxes, insurance or other costs of ownership.
This lease shall be for ___years beginning (date)_____________________with automatic renewal for (how long):________(years) unless either party gives written notice to the contrary at least 3 months (90 days) before the expiration of the current rental period.  The rental rate may be adjusted annually to account for increases in taxes, insurance or other costs of ownership.
Any meadow land plowed for annual crops will be re-seeded to a perennial forage crop at the end of the lease period (unless the lease has been automatically renewed).  Any differences between the landlord and tenants as to their rights and obligations under this lease that are not settled by mutual agreement shall be submitted to an arbitrator or other such person who has authority to make a final decision.  It is agreed that the stipulations of this lease are to apply to and bind the heirs, executors, administrators, and assigns of the respective parties and is made and executed in duplicate.
In witness whereof the parties have signed this lease on this date of________________.

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