City votes to allow tax breaks for vacant properties in exchange for gardens

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SAN DIEGO – Owners of some vacant or blighted lots will be able to get a tax break in exchange for growing fruits and vegetables under a plan approved Tuesday by the San Diego City Council.

The city is now covered by an Urban Agriculture Incentive Zone that allows owners of more than 2,000 qualifying blighted parcels to submit plans to turn their properties into community gardens or other agricultural uses in exchange for paying a lower property tax rate based on the area per-acre value of irrigated farmland. The program was created by a 2014 state law.

City officials say the aim is to increase green spaces, build community, educate the public about fresh food production and increase access to fruits and vegetables in areas that lack fresh food.

Parts of San Diego are considered “food deserts” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — areas in which healthy, fresh food is not readily available. This includes areas of Southeastern San Diego, which according to a San Diego State University study, could also be described as a “food swamp” because it offers an excess of fast-food options.

“Recent research suggests that the presence of unhealthy food in a neighborhood may be as equally damaging to its residents’ health as the absence of food,” according to the report from the SDSU Geography Department.

Property owners must apply for the program with the city. Parcels must be at least 0.1 acres and no more than three acres and the entire property must be dedicated to the agricultural use — no houses or apartments are allowed.

If approved, the property owner and the city would enter into a contract of at least five years.

If all qualifying property owners participated, the city would lose out on $1.35 million annually in property tax revenue, according to a city staff report.

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