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City could lose nearly 100 community gardens over contract dispute

October 16, 2019 Scott Enman
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Roughly 100 community gardens on city-owned land are in danger of closing or relocating due to a new licensing agreement from the Parks Department that gardeners are calling unfair and overly onerous.

The contract, created by the agency’s GreenThumb program and signed every four years, has several new changes, including an updated liability policy, a limit on the number of fundraisers and a rigid approval process for all events. It also prohibits any payment or requests for donations during tours, a rule in both the previous and updated agreement.

The license, with both its new and old regulations, has made it unviable for some volunteer-run institutions to exist, according to Yemi Amu, founder and manager of Bushwick’s Oko Farms, the largest and only outdoor aquaponics facility in New York City.

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“They’re dictating how we can create resources to keep this space sustainable and micromanaging us,” Amu said.

Protestors hold up a banner at last month’s rally for a fair contract. Photo courtesy of New York City Community Garden Coalition

More than 350 of the 550 total community gardens in New York City are on GreenThumb land, and about 30 percent of them have refused to sign the new agreement.

Thirteen politicians, including three from Brooklyn, sent a letter to parks Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver on Thursday calling for his agency to continue meaningful conversations with the gardeners to resolve unsettled issues.

“Under the proposed license … GreenThumb becomes an agent of enforcement rather than a garden-friendly working partner,” the letter reads. “The 2019 Community Garden License Agreement and GreenThumb Gardeners’ Handbook contains new burdensome requirements that could hinder the community outreach and engagement that is a hallmark of community gardens in New York City.”

The letter, signed by U.S. Reps. Nydia Velázquez, Jerrold Nadler and Carolyn Maloney, among others, specifically mentions concerns regarding a termination clause, permitting and the definition of responsibility for risk and liability.

With only two opportunities for fundraising events per year, according to the new agreement, and barred from soliciting donations, Oko Farms is being forced to relocate to the Weeksville Heritage Center, a privately owned landmarked site in Crown Heights.

Amu told the Brooklyn Eagle that she was only made aware that she couldn’t ask for donations in December. Oko Farms signed the new agreement, but still plans on relocating. In order to do that, however, Amu needs to raise $50,000. As of Wednesday morning, the farm, which opened in 2013, had raised $5,187.

“GreenThumb gardens are public spaces, and paid tours violate our longstanding license agreement and are not allowed,” said Dan Kastanis of the Parks Department. “We understand the need for fundraising in order for these gardens to successfully support themselves, which is the reason why we amended the license agreements to allow for two events without a permit. However, there is a fine line between organized fundraising and charging for access to NYC Parks-owned public spaces and we ask all gardens to be mindful of that distinction.”

Yemi Amu (left) gives a tour of Oko Farms, New York City’s largest and only outdoor aquaponics facility. Image courtesy of Oko Farms

Kastanis said the new license agreement reflects feedback from gardeners and that his agency would continue to address any questions or concerns that volunteers have.

Sandra Nurse, founder of BK ROT and a candidate for a State Assembly seat, a food waste hauling and composting company in Bushwick, said it’s “absurd” for GreenThumb to take issue with Oko Farms asking for donations.

“Yemi’s not running a for-profit farm. She’s running an educational space where high school students, young kids and adults come to learn how to do this work,” Nurse said. “GreenThumb should be actively supporting an operation like Yemi’s and looking for ways to enhance her work as an education hub versus finding ways to limit and restrict how that work is sustained.”

Oko Farms raises fish and uses the water to grow plants. Photo courtesy of Oko Farms

Aziz Dehkan of New York City Community Garden Coalition — a group founded in 1996 that supports and provides legal aid to community gardens — argues that the problem runs deeper than not being able to ask for donations. The largest concerns, he said, center on liability issues, an arduous events approval process and vague guidelines.

He questioned why volunteers are required to shovel snow in the wintertime when the sites are not typically in use. If they, or a passerby, were to get injured, he said the city could potentially hold the gardeners responsible.

“Why do volunteers have to clean city sidewalks that are adjacent to city property?” he asked. “What happens if one of those volunteers gets injured? Who assumes the liability for that injury?”

Plants growing at Oko Farms. Photo courtesy of Oko Farms

GreenThumb did remove an indemnification clause in the new agreement that made garden groups explicitly liable for any injuries occurring on the property. Under the current contract, the liability is determined on a case-by-case basis through the legal system, according to the Parks Department.

Dehkan said the guidelines for the gardeners — who rallied for a fair license last month at City Hall — are vague, unclear and a simple misinterpretation could lead to eviction.

“The permitting process is difficult at best, and confusing at worst,” he said. “The language in the license, the handbook and the rules and regulations do not always jive. The rules are different in each one of those three documents. So what do you follow?”

Dehkan claimed that several gardeners have been threatened with being locked out of their gardens if they do not sign the new licensing agreement. The Parks Department denies that allegation.

“These are volunteers on city-owned land, and they’re being treated like paid contractors,” Dehkan said. “That’s a real key here. There is no respect.”

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1 Comment

  1. Brooklyn

    Silly NYC. They get people willing to work for free in beautifying this unattractive place, and then they want to make them liable! The opposite should be occurring, the free labor should at a minimum be covered by workman compensation like any other worker is entitled to.

    Worse yet is sidewalk liability. No one, including these Gardeners, should be required to clean a city sidewalk and curb other than NYC. No different than asking someone to clean their half of the street, this is city property and the job of cleaning it and maintaining it should fall upon NYC as well as the liabilities.

    Lastly, it’s an absurd notion to classify tours as paying to access a park. Putting aside the work product that people are coming to see, tours require thought, planning, work and supplies, so a contribution to such is not payment for access. Access is free and a prepared tour is separate and distinct.

    Now let’s put the shoe on the other foot, NYC hires not-for-profits like Prospect Park Alliance who charges ridiculous fees for soirees and the like in the park. Further, they fund raise 24/7 through a website portal. It’s a mere sham for NYC to use the cover of Prospect Park Alliance to illegally fund raise for what would otherwise be their responsibility and cost. Let alone break the very “rules” they are trying to impose on volunteer Gardeners.

    Shame on you NYC! Even when people give back, you figure out a way to sour it.