Oakland urban homesteading celebrity Novella Carpenter could face fines from the city for unpermitted agricultural activities and lose the animals she keeps at Ghost Town Farm, a West Oakland garden that helped make local, sustainable food popular in the East Bay.
Carpenter says she received a notice that she was being fined about two weeks ago from the city’s Animal Services department based on a complaint against her selling rabbit meat. After a follow-up inspection on Tuesday from the city’s planning department, she was also warned that she must also acquire a conditional use permit for her agricultural activities.
Carpenter is a graduate of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, where Oakland North is based, and her 2008 memoir Farm City details her efforts to grow produce on the vacant lot next door to her apartment and raise animals in her backyard. Carpenter only recently purchased the lot, and for many years had been squatting on the property, asserting that the garden was a benefit to the public. Since publishing her book, Carpenter has travelled worldwide to talk about growing food in urban settings. Carpenter raises goats, chickens, ducks and rabbits and gives demonstrations on raising and butchering animals at Ghost Town Farm.
Carpenter said she purchased the corner lot next to her apartment last year, and that the area where she grows vegetables—mostly on raised beds—is zoned for mixed commercial and residential use. Currently, she does not have a permit to grow crops or raise animals for sale on the property. But Carpenter said when she bought the property she checked with the planning department to ask whether she would need any permits and was told to wait until April when new zoning laws will loosen restrictions on urban farming throughout the city.
As a result, she said, the notice from Animal Services took her by surprise. “They said they were going to fine me $1,000 and take away all my animals unless I ceased my activities,” she said. “I didn’t know—I guess there is a law against selling rabbit products.”
Carpenter said that the follow-up visit from city planning inspector Chris Candell resulted in a warning that because she had been operating without a permit, she could be charged double the price of a conditional use permit for agriculture, which is typically $2,500. That would be a $5,000 fee on top of the $1,000 fine from Animal Services, according to Carpenter.
Candell said he was not able to comment because the inspection is still underway, and he is currently discussing the matter with a supervisor. Asked if Carpenter’s estimate that she would face $6,000 in fees was correct, Candell said that total was not accurate.
Carpenter said the Animal Services citation was related to a potpie containing rabbit meat she donated to a fundraiser, and that she didn’t realize this constituted a “sale.” Furthermore, she said, follow-up calls to the city have left her unclear on what is allowed in Oakland. “I can’t raise rabbits? I can’t sell rabbits? I don’t even know,” she said.
Esperanza Pallana, who also grows food at her home in Oakland, said laws are not clear enough for people who want to grow food or raise animals in the city. Pallana, who runs the urban farming blog Pluck and Feather, distributes information to other urban farmers to help them get started, including information on local regulations. “It’s important to me that we do it legitimately,” she said. Nevertheless, Pallana says that often the laws aren’t clear. “I don’t understand at what point growing a garden on your lot is an agricultural activity,” Pallana said.
Robert Merkamp of Oakland’s city’s planning department was unable to comment on Carpenter’s situation, but said restrictions involving conditional use permits can apply to lots where people grow crops or raise animals for sale and that residents cross the line between gardening and agriculture when they offer products for sale. The city’s zoning regulations say that crop and animal activities that could require city permits “include the raising of tree, vine, field, forage, and other plant crops, intended to provide food or fibers, as well as keeping, grazing, or feeding of animals for animal products, animal increase, or value increase.”
Carpenter said she is holding out on challenging the fines until updates are added to the city’s zoning regulations in April, in case she is exempted under the new regulations. However, she cancelled a “pop-up farmstand” event for Wednesday night over concerns that the city would send an inspector to the event, which she publicized on her blog.
Carpenter said the effort to write her up was an over-reaction, writing indignantly on her blog, “I’m supposed to get a Conditional Use Permit for growing chard.” Furthermore, she said that she doesn’t understand why the city would write her up weeks before its regulations change. “Why is Oakland sending this guy?” Carpenter asked. “The answer to that is that no one knows what the fuck is going on in the city of Oakland.”
For now, Carpenter said she is vexed that one complaint could bring some of her urban homesteading activities to a halt. “Okay, so I decide I don’t like someone, so I can call the city of Oakland on them,” she said. “You could spend your whole life just fucking with people.”