More protection sought for 'adopted' open space

Thousands of dollars and hours of labor have been poured into Boone Street Farm, an oasis on a quarter-acre of city-owned land a few blocks north of Green Mount Cemetery.

Through Baltimore's "Adopt-A-Lot" program, residents legally planted fruit trees, established a free community garden and erected a greenhouse there. During the summer, the farm employs a handful of young people.

"We have a significant amount of space under production now," said Cheryl Carmona, one of the founders of the farm, which sprouted where 12 rowhouses once stood. It's the farm's third growing season, she said, and most of the area is planted.

Still, despite the sweat and cash that Carmona and others have invested in the farm, it all could be taken away in a matter of days. The city lists many of its adopted lots for sale and has the right to sell them at any time, giving the people and organizations that adopted them as little as 30 days' notice to vacate.

As the city pushes for more development in neighborhoods, Adopt-A-Lot critics say, it's only a matter of time before conflicts emerge between builders, city officials and the residents who invested in vacant land when no one else wanted it.

"Even though they're working hard, they have no legal rights," said Miriam Avins, the executive director of Baltimore Green Space, about residents who adopt lots. "People put a lot of effort in, and they feel like they should have a stake … and the fact is, with Adopt-A-Lot, you don't."

Avins helped organize Baltimore Green Space, a land trust that buys city property to preserve it, after a community garden in Better Waverly faced the threat of sale.

It's not a mistake that the city is actively marketing some adopted lots for sale, Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano said. Lots for sale tend to be in neighborhoods where people may want to buy empty land, he said.

"People should not be spending large amounts of money on these lots without some assurance from us on the time frame," Graziano said.

The opaque legalese in the adoption agreement leads many people to assume they have more rights to adopted land than they actually do, said Becky Lundberg Witt, an attorney with the Community Law Center, which advises neighborhoods and nonprofits throughout Maryland. She prepared a plain English version of the Adopt-A-Lot agreement that people can review before signing on the dotted line.

"This needs to be a more transparent process," she said.

The Adopt-A-Lot contract is a license agreement. It gives the adopter the right to enter the land and use it for limited purposes, but it places many responsibilities on the adopter.

The adopter must pay for any permits required to improve the land, indemnify the city from lawsuits stemming from the property or the adjoining sidewalks, and keep the property clean and safe. The adopter also forfeits any right to be reimbursed by the city for improvements made to the lot if the city decides to sell the property.

The city agrees to provide 30 days' notice if the Adopt-A-Lot license is terminated. If a property being used as a garden is sold during the summer, in the middle of the growing season, the city will try to extend the license until the fall, but it makes no guarantee to do so.

"The level of sophistication varies enormously" among Adopt-A-Lot applicants, Avins said. Many individuals and groups adopt city lots without understanding the responsibility they're taking on and the limited rights they receive, she said.

Last month, the Baltimore Free Farm in Hampden sounded alarm bells after the city received a developer's bid for the land where growers, who had not adopted the lots, planted flowers and food. On Wednesday, Baltimore Housing said it would negotiate with the Free Farm for the sale of the land.

Through the Vacants to Value program, run out of the Baltimore Housing office, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake aims to streamline the rehabilitation and reuse of the city's many vacant properties. The program simultaneously pushes communities to take responsibility for empty lots, while seeking developers to build on or restore abandoned properties. The city figures that over 800 lots are now adopted.

"Really rapidly, we've been able to involve a whole lot of people in the adoption, revitalization of these lots," said Vu Dang, the city's chief service officer, who works to improve citizen engagement and simplified the lot adoption process two years ago.

Ultimately, he said, adoption is an interim solution, and city officials will decide what to do with the lots in the long term.

The city lists dozens of adopted lots for sale through Vacants to Value, including a large chunk of the Boone Street Farm. That distresses Carmona, who works full time on the farm and has invested more than $10,000, much of the money from Parks & People Foundation grants, into the property.

"This site is on the edge of some really up-and-coming areas," Carmona said. "Having it taken away would be devastating."

The Boone Street Farm is just off Greenmount Avenue, blocks from the evolving Station North Arts and Entertainment District. New homes are being built a few hundred yards from the farm, and it's not hard to imagine that in a little time, development will encroach on the adopted lots, Carmona said.

City records show the Boone Street lots, now covered in vegetables, are listed for less than $10,000. But even if Carmona had that money, she'd prefer to spend it on a fence and irrigation system. It doesn't make sense to pay thousands for the land because she thinks the farm can successfully apply to have Avins' organization buy the lots from the city for $1 each after the farm has been active for five years, she said.

Baltimore Green Space's land trust has a relationship with the city, which has in the past sold land to the trust for a negligible amount in recognition of the sweat equity that's gone into the property. But there's no assurance the city will accept that offer in two years for Boone Street Farm or any other adopted lot.

Baltimore Housing sometimes removes properties from the Vacants to Value list if they're informed that an adopted lot is being used by the community, Avins said. But that ad hoc system may not be adequate protection.

When Carmona called to ask that the Boone Street Farms lots be taken off the sale list, she was turned down.

"They basically told me that … I had no protection from it being sold," Carmona said.

Graziano acknowledged that the city needs to develop more explicit guidelines for green space, particularly in transitioning areas, he said.

But the city has a responsibility to make sure adopted parcels can be put to their "highest and best use" because real estate markets change, Graziano said.

"We don't want to foreclose options by making early and permanent commitments," he said.

The Boone Street situation "really speaks the need to have some more secure agreements," said Maya Kosok, coordinator of the Farm Alliance of Baltimore, an advocacy group for urban farmers.

Tara Megos, founder of Hidden Harvest Farm, which also is near Station North, recently asked the city if she could have more secure rights to the land. She was told Hidden Harvest could be designated as "community managed open space."

That means the city has identified the site, typically at the suggestion of Baltimore Green Space or the Parks & People Foundation, as having "a great deal of community investment," said Cheron Porter, a Baltimore Housing spokeswoman.

But that designation is arbitrary, said Community Law's Witt. There are no defined requirements and no additional assurances that the land won't be sold, Witt said.

In a neighborhood just east of Johns Hopkins' Homewood campus, the community association has offered repeatedly to buy several city-owned lots that it adopted, but its offers have been ignored, said Mark Counselman, a past president of the Oakenshawe Improvement Association. The community has invested at least $7,000 and hundreds of hours into the lots, he said.

The Community Law Center suggests that, at a minimum, the city provide those who have adopted lots a "right of first refusal," meaning they would have priority for the land's purchase over another bidder. Leasing the property also could resolve land insecurity issues, Witt said.

Even with a right of first refusal, Carmona doubts she would be able to match a developer's offer in a short period of time.

"If the city had a leasing program that protected us from having these lots purchased, that would make a lot more sense," she said.

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