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Urban farmers settle on lease deal for Wilson Street vacant lots

Common Council Report

At Tuesday’s Common Council meeting, councilmembers honored the work of Sidney Parnes, a former Buffalo State professor and a pioneer in the field of creativity. More importantly, the city took inspiration from Parnes and finally came to a creative solution to approve an urban farm on Buffalo’s East Side.

Under a special agreement with City Hall, Mark and Janice Stevens will be allowed to lease a two-acre plot of land on Wilson Street behind their Fillmore Street home. The family will use the once-contended piece of land to plant fresh fruits, vegetables, and flower gardens that will brighten up the alley street.

The Stevens family made the rare move from Wyoming County to the city’s East Side last year, partly because they had their eyes on this land. The family is thrilled their quiet persistence has finally come to fruition. “We’re very happy it’s all paid off,” Mark Stevens says.

Artvoice reported on the Stevens family’s plight in a cover story on April 9, which was when the issue came to a head. The city’s Land Use Committee had rejected the lease appeal because the plots had to stay available for future housing development, and Brian Reilly, commissioner for the Department of Economic Development, Permit and Inspection Services, indicated that the proposal would be knocked down. Since last month, the Stevenses have been in talks with the mayor’s office, the Department of Real Estate, and everyone in between. Mayor Byron Brown even released a statement of support for the urban farm last week. According to Mark Stevens, the talks were positive and the city was willing to work out a compromise, which came in the form of this special land-use agreement. “Once they said they’d approve it, the city was very nice about it,” he says.

Common Council President and Fillmore District Councilmember David Franczyk supported the Stevens’ plan from the beginning. Franczyk lives just down the block and believes it’s simply not possible to fill every empty lot on the East Side with new development and housing.

The agreement skirts around the city’s zoning law—originally written in the 1950s and being reformed this year—which currently does not have designations for urban farming. Since this agreement is unique, the Stevenses will have to document their planting and outreach to the community and report back to the city. Franczyk says he would support, even sponsor, a change to the city’s zoning law to encompass future urban farms. “At least we got the ball rolling for now,” Franczyk says.

Though the planting season has already begun, Mark Stevens hopes to make a start this summer. First, he’ll begin clearing the lots, truck in dirt to make raised beds on the land, and do a bit of planting. Next season, he’ll go full force.

ellen przepasniak

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