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Founders of Gaia Gardens quit urban farming in protest of city inaction

Poki Piottin stands next to a farm stand in 2012 that he opened on Gaia Gardens. (Journal file)

Poki Piottin stands next to a farm stand in 2012 that he opened on Gaia Gardens. (Journal file)

SANTA FE, N.M. — The founders of Gaia Gardens in Santa Fe are throwing in the towel on their urban farm, which has faced continued obstacles from zoning regulations.

Poki Piottin, who founded and runs the gardens with Dominique Pozo, said the next three months of produce will be given away to people in need.

The decision followed a third meeting with city officials Monday asking him to close the property’s farm stand. “I have decided to stop farming in the city — in protest,” Piottin wrote in an email.

But the farm also has faced other problems.

Piottin said it has been seeking water rights to irrigate the crops, but the regulatory process wouldn’t be completed until next summer.

Also, the bank has filed a foreclosure action against the owner of the land, which Gaia Gardens has been renting, making it unclear how long they would be able to remain on the land. Piottin said he had raised money through crowd-funding and foundations to make an offer to buy the land, but the owner declined to consider a purchase while he was still able to collect rents.

In the meantime, Piottin said he had been working with the city since 2013 to try to draft an agricultural ordinance which would make such urban farms easier, but action has been slow.

John Alejandro, renewable energy planner and sustainability coordinator for the city of Santa Fe, said he has been working with a committee of interested people on that ordinance, with the last two months spent “aggressively pursuing” an ordinance. It would be circulated among interested parties for comments and suggestions, with the goal of having a final ordinance introduced to City Council in mid-September, he said.

He said a draft ordinance was written last year, “but it was not as robust as the mayor had hoped it would be.” Work continued this year with more “content” added to the draft ordinance “in a way it hopefully will encourage agriculture and community gardening throughout Santa Fe,” he said.

But it’s too late for Piottin and Pozo, who are ready for someone else to pick up the baton and run with it.

“Both Dominique and I are very happy about what we’ve done. We’ve worked with schools, given plants away, given to charities,” Piottin said. “It’s been very exhausting. We need a break. We need to rejuvenate.”

He said they’re exploring whether the money they raised to buy the Gaia Gardens property can instead be used to purchase other land, but not within the city limits. The pair would consider setting up a permaculture education and retreat center, perhaps with a summer camp with programs for people with special needs, an area in which Pozo works as a therapist, he said.

The pair and helpers made great improvements in the soil for Gaia Gardens, located on land along the Arroyo Chamiso between Yucca Road and Camino Carlos Rey. Opened in 2012, the garden’s farm stand was shut down the next year after complaints to the city were investigated and it was found in violation of zoning ordinances for that property. Piottin said they decided to reopen it this year, giving the city “several months notice” of his intentions.

“Going to the Farmers’ Market doesn’t make sense when you can sell your food to your neighborhood,” he wrote. “This summer was the time we chose to showcase how beautiful a farm stand can be in the middle of the city.”

Originally, the pair intended to use the site as a model for students and other interested people to visit and learn about urban farming, with volunteers helping work the land and programs and potlucks offered for the community, but the city enforced ordinances limiting the number of people who could be on the property. Many, but not all, of the neighborhood residents supported the operation, according to past letters and emails from them.

One neighbor and a couple of that person’s friends have been pressuring the city to enforce the codes applying to the Gaia Gardens property, Piottin said, claiming support from 43 other residents in the area bordering the farm.

“One can have a garage sale every day and that’s OK, or a lemonade stand, but having a farm stand open 3 days a week from 8 a.m.-12 p.m. is illegal,” he wrote in his email.

He said he hopes their discontinuation of farming and selling produce forces “people to really wake up and get involved in city politics.”

He said he holds no ill will toward city inspectors, who are just doing their jobs. “The City as a politically elected body are really the ones responsible,” Piottin said, complaining that elected leaders had not moved quickly enough to make urban farms such as his possible.

In a written comment issued through his spokesman, Mayor Javier Gonzales thanked Piottin for his work in helping create an urban agriculture ordinance, calling it a “big priority” for him.

“My hope is that our new ordinances will address situations like this one,” he mayor said. “I know the process moves slowly sometimes, but we want to get this right, so we will keep working hard on it, taking public input along the way and consulting a wide range of people. Urban agriculture has a big future in Santa Fe.”

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