Iconic urban farm at risk of city fines

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.”

16 Comments

  1. FloodedByCEDA

    The city is out of money.
    should the city A) Fine the urban gardener several thousand dollars to pay the city inspector’s salery,or B) fire the city inspector?

  2. deprogrammed

    There are far worse things happening everywhere, much less West Oakland, than people trying to feed themselves.

  3. Mark Fargo

    Re: “City of Oakland Shuts Down Novella Carpenter’s Urban Farmstand”
    Oh please… Novella Carpenter should really be called “Cruella Carpenter”.
    For someone so “mild-mannered” she sure has a thing for killing cute, fluffy critters and get this… “empowering” others to do the same. oh yeah…she says it’s green and eco-friendly to do that. Just so you know…it’s not.

    Going dumpster diving , raising your own plants and respecting nature is all well and good. But this is NOT what Novella Carpenter is all about. At the core, her actions have become a narcisstic, publicity seeking venture and a blight on the community and environment.

    The real situation is that Carpenter is not some sort of innocent, “victim”. She believes herself to be superior to everyone else and entitled to make her own rules regarding cruelty to animals and basic hygiene and sanitation.

    In reality, what she practices is a schizophrenic view of what it means to be a responsible, caring guardian of the Earth. Want to truly be green and low impact on the environment? Let’s see if Ms. Carpenter decides to start trapping, breeding and teaching to slaughter feral cats, street rats, homeless pitbulls, etc…Oh, there’s also plenty of roadkill. A ready-made, low-impact, eco-friendly protein source. Sound ridiculous?
    It actually makes a lot more sense than breeding new animals and using precious resources for their care. Growing plants are one thing, but this is NOT what Carpenter is doing. Thank you to the city of Oakland for showing common sense, by not allowing an individual who causes so much pain and suffering in the community to go rogue.

  4. chris karma

    typical liberal response from the city of Oakland. The part of the Constitution that says “excessive fee’s and fines shall not be imposed” doesn’t apply to California’s fascist liberals.

  5. Oakland Girl

    Slaughtering animals has long been illegal in Oakland, and Novella has been flagrantly breaking the law by slaughtering rabbits, chickens, and other animals, and it’s about time that the city did something about it.

    Novella can grow as much chard as she likes.

    Rabbits are really wonderful animals and have individual personalities, just like cats and dogs. So do the other animals that she kills. Every goat, chicken, duck, and rabbit in Oakland, just like every cat and dog, deserves the chance to live and not be illegally killed.

    There are so many food choices that people have that do not necessitate this kind of cruelty. Support all the wonderful community-oriented non-profits that support truly life-enriching urban gardening, such as People’s Grocery and City Slicker Farms. But don’t support Novella Carpenter.

  6. Max Allstadt

    There are issues here with Ms. Carpenter not complying fully with the law.

    However, it’s clear that at least some of the law needs to be changed. If there’s no exemption for a small farm stand that does occasional sales, perhaps there should be one.

    Also, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the complaint against Ms. Carpenter was brought by some self-righteous vegan absolutists like the above commenters Oakland Girl and Mark Fargo.

    If in fact the complaint wasn’t brought by a nearby neighbor and is a political statement by PETA douchebags, I’m rather disgusted. So disgusted, that I think I’ll be eating veal for dinner, and I may even stop by the Game Exchange and pick up some Kangaroo tenderloins next week. Nomnomnom.

  7. Know Your City

    Did you know?:
    1) It is legal to slaughter livestock for personal consumption in Oakland.
    2) It is legal to sell raw agricultural products from your own property, provided you have the standard permits for sales. Exact required permitting varies by the zone you are in.
    3) Eggs are considered raw agricultural product.

    While it sounds like some of Novella’s activities may require permitting, it also sounds like much of what she is doing is legal. To “Auntie Em’s” concern about feeding an animal from a dumpster, I wonder if she has seen how most animals are fed, handled and treated at factory farms. If you eat meat, raising and slaughtering your own is a sustainable way to do it.

  8. Sarah

    From the Oakland code: “8.40.080 – Offensive places and occupations. It is unlawful for any person to establish or maintain any slaughterhouse, to keep any hog, to cure or keep hides, skins or peltry, to slaughter cattle, sheep or any other kind of animal, to pursue, maintain or carry on any other business or occupation offensive to the senses or prejudicial to the public health or comfort, within the limits of the city.”

    I don’t understand why this is a controversial issue. The woman is in clear violation of the law. Her feelings on the matter and her lack of awareness about the law are irrelevant. She broke the law, and therefore gets a fine. Just like the rest of us.

    If she and her supporters feel that it’s a bad law, it is their right to try to change it by going through their elected representatives. But whining about getting slapped with a fine when you broke the law is like whining when you get a ticket for running a red light. Take responsibility for your actions.

  9. Sarah

    p.s. I have to admit I’m disappointed in the tone of this article. Usually Oakland North does great reporting, but this article was far from unbiased. The choice of title alone, the crafting of the story to make the farmer into a victim, all culminated in making it clear where the journalist stood on the issue. I know she’s an alum of the J-school and involved in very exciting food movement, but c’mon Oakland North – you can do better in terms of even-handed story management!

  10. Auntie Em'

    Thanks Sarah for showing us code 8.40.080.

    Apparently, it is illegal to raise ANY animal for slaughter and to slaughter them in the city of Oakland.
    I assume the laws are similar in most other cities.

    And it most certainly is illegal to SELL animal meat and other animal products to the public without licensing and following appropriate codes which the health department has in place to protect public health.

    Imagine if someone got e.coli or salmonella from this meat.
    Everyone would be howling at the city for allowing this person to sell tainted meat or dairy.

    The USDA codes and standards and local laws are there for a very good reason.

    I don’t care if Carpenter sells chard or not or even sells chard to the public.

    I do care that she raises and sells animals and animal products without first being certified by the health department. And I know that the various codes regarding animal husbandry and slaughter cannot be satisfied by someone on a small plot in the city (even if the city did not have the above code).

    And yeah, I am aware of factory farming and the awful conditions which livestock endure and the inherent cruelty of these methods.

    This does not mean that ever person with a plot of land can now raise, slaughter, and sell animals from their backyard without following codes and standards.

    • Auntie Em'

      then there’s this

      8.14.010 – Supervision of meat preparation.

      It is unlawful for any person to sell, have in possession, keep or expose for sale for human food, the flesh of any cattle, hogs, sheep, swine, goats, rabbits, or any other animal, poultry, fish, or meat food products, unless the same shall have been slaughtered or passed under the supervision of the United States Government Inspector, in accordance with the regulations relating to the inspection thereof as prescribed by the Department of Agriculture of the United States, or under the supervision of the state of California, Department of Agriculture Inspector, in accordance with the regulations relating to the inspection thereof as prescribed by the Department of Agriculture of the state of California, or under the supervision of the Health Officer of the city of Oakland, in accordance with the provisions of this chapter.

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