City mulling using FEMA lots for community gardens

Published 12:39 am Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Washington’s City Council wants more information before deciding whether to allow some “FEMA lots” to be used for community gardens.

Council member William Pitt said using the lots for community gardens would make them productive and benefit the community instead of being just a drain on the city’s resources.

“We do have 40 FEMA lots that are currently being mowed at a price of $13,080 during the grass-cutting season. They’re usually mowed twice a month,” Pitt said. “Some of these FEMA lots are close to sources that flood, such as ditches or other water sources. I’d like to look at some of these lots as possible use for community gardens by nonprofits, partnered with the Master Gardeners of Beaufort County as well. I think we could save the city some money on this and would could offer fresh produce to nonprofits to help feed our people.”

Councilman Bobby Roberson said he’s not opposed to such use of FEMA lots, but first he wants Washington officials to talk with officials in cities that have tried using Federal Emergency Management Agency lots as community gardens. He said the city should cautiously explore Pitt’s suggestion.

“For example, two major issues you have with gardens on vacant lots. If you have an individual who goes out there and they’re doing a good job on the gardening, the next thing you’ll have is people actually going over as a community-service garden and taking stuff off the lot,” Roberson said. “And then we’re going to require our police chief to actually go out and monitor the lots for people who are taking items off these gardens. That’s No. 1. The second problem you run into is after the crops are over, guess what the problem is? Individuals don’t go back over there and clean up the lot and actually take all the debris that they’ve got on the lot (away) and take the posts down and all that.”

Roberson said he believes it would be more advantageous for the city to sublet the vacant FEMA lots to adjoining property owners for $25 a year and let them maintain the lots. Those property owners could place playground equipment on the lots or use them for personal gardens, he said.

Councilman Doug Mercer suggested expanding the existing community garden adjacent to Warren Field Airport. For one thing, he said, it has a water source. Finding water sources for FEMA lots so they can be used as community gardens could be problematic, he said.

Mercer expressed another concern.

“You have an individual come in and does an outstanding job of bringing in a garden. He goes out on Friday afternoon and says, ‘My tomatoes are just about ready.’ He goes back on Monday morning and he ain’t got no tomatoes.”

“I’m telling you,” interrupted Roberson.

“I can see there being a problem with someone going out and putting in a lot of effort and then not reaping the benefits of that effort,” Mercer said.

FEMA funds were used to purchase the lots, usually found in the 100-year flood plain. The lots in Washington, at least many of them, have a history of being flooded. Instead of repeatedly paying property owners for damages to their properties after floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters, FEMA has a policy that calls for it to buy such lots and to prohibit construction of residential and commercial buildings and permanent structures on the lots. Other uses (such as recreational, gazebos) of the lots are allowed.

About Mike Voss

Mike Voss is the contributing editor at the Washington Daily News. He has a daughter and four grandchildren. Except for nearly six years he worked at the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va., in the early to mid-1990s, he has been at the Daily News since April 1986.
Journalism awards:
• Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service, 1990.
• Society of Professional Journalists: Sigma Delta Chi Award, Bronze Medallion.
• Associated Press Managing Editors’ Public Service Award.
• Investigative Reporters & Editors’ Award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Public Service Award, 1989.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Investigative Reporting, 1990.
All those were for the articles he and Betty Gray wrote about the city’s contaminated water system in 1989-1990.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Investigative Reporting, 1991.
• North Carolina Press Association, Third Place, General News Reporting, 2005.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Lighter Columns, 2006.
Recently learned he will receive another award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Lighter Columns, 2010.
4. Lectured at or served on seminar panels at journalism schools at UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Maryland, Columbia University, Mary Washington University and Francis Marion University.

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