Baltimore Free Farm bids on city-owned lots

Bill Thomas works in the shade of a tall sunflower to clear weeds from a garden bed with Jon Smeton, right, a Johns Hopkins intern from Bel Air, at the Ash Street Garden, a community garden run by Baltimore Free Farm, in Hampden on June 21.
Bill Thomas works in the shade of a tall sunflower to clear weeds from a garden bed with Jon Smeton, right, a Johns Hopkins intern from Bel Air, at the Ash Street Garden, a community garden run by Baltimore Free Farm, in Hampden on June 21. (Staff photo by Brian Krista)

Urban farmers are complaining about the city's plan to sell two lots that are part of an ambitious community garden on a working class street in Hampden.

But they are also trying to buy the lots to prevent them from being developed.


Baltimore Housing put the lots, located at 1522 and 1524 Baldwin St., out to bid last month after a developer expressed interest in building a house on each one, housing officials said. The sale is part of the city's Vacants to Value program to sell abandoned housing stock and empty lots.

The developer, whom housing officials would not identify, has since bid on the properties — but so has Baltimore Free Farm, a Hampden-based group that promotes urban farming, community gardening and environmental sustainability.


Among other projects, Baltimore Free Farm built and maintains the Ash Street Garden, a community garden with its own front gate, underground irrigation system, chicken coop and greenhouse on a steep hillside overlooking Interstate 83. The garden consumes three lots in the 3500 block of Ash Street, and borders the lots on Baldwin, around the corner.

Baltimore Free Farm has raised an unspecified amount of money to make a competitive bid on the lots, and has submitted a petition with more than 1,200 names to the city, asking for priority consideration, according to Reagan Hooton and Bill Thomas, organizing members of the group

Baltimore Free Farm should have the edge because the group has spent several years reclaiming the lots from neglect, they said.

"This whole hillside was trashed," Hooton, 33, a part-time Johns Hopkins Hospital worker said Wednesday, June 19, as she strode up a dirt path to the top of Ash Street Garden. There, Thomas, 26, and Baltimore Free Farm summer intern Jon Smeton, 20, a Hopkins University junior, shoveled a composting bin, while chickens clucked in the nearby coop and cars whizzed by on I-83.


"I feel like we've done the city all these great favors," Hooton said. "We turned (the site) into something productive."

Although Baltimore Free Farm has formed a corporation, Horizontal Housing Co., to buy the lots, it also protests the sale as "unnecessary" on its website, http://www.baltimorefreefarm.org.

The group says it has given away hundreds of pounds of free produce and vegetables to area residents, and accuses the city of shopping the lots "to those who provide the highest economic value, rather than those who provide the highest community value."

"With many other vacant houses and lots in the Hampden area, we feel like selling these two particular lots for development is unnecessary and unfortunate," the website states.

Several houses are vacant and boarded in the 3500 block of Ash, where Baltimore Free Farm has its offices across the street from the garden.

'Creative bunch'

Housing officials praise Baltimore Free Farm.

"They're a creative bunch and they've done good work," said Julie Day, deputy housing commissioner for land resources. "They've made a real difference in this community."

But Day and Baltimore Housing spokeswoman Cheron Porter said that although Baltimore Free Farm has a lease with the city to use lots on Ash Street, it does not have a lease or a license to use the lots on Baldwin. Baltimore Free Farm has tried to lease those lots under the city's Adopt A Lot initiative, which is part of Vacants to Value. But the city has turned the group down, "because there was the potential for development of these properties," Day said.

Day said it would be misleading to lease the Baldwin lots to the group, only to turn around and sell the lots later.

The problem, said Hooton and Thomas, is that the lots on Baldwin overlap several lots on Ash and have become part of the garden. The group would be losing about one sixth of the half-acre site it farms, they said.

Baltimore Free Farm has submitted several letters of support to Baltimore Housing, including a letter from City Councilman Nick Mosby, who represents the area, Hooton said.

Day said she expects a decision "in the near future."

Thomas, who lives with his wife on Ash Street, said that Baltimore Free Farm, founded in 2010, won a volunteer service award from the governor's office and a Best Vegetable Garden award from the Baltimore City Master Gardeners, both in 2012.

Thomas also said the group has benefited from supporters like the late Paul Pojman, a Towson University philosophy professor, who owned the house where Thomas now lives. Pojman, who died of lung cancer at age 45 in 2012, bought the house to help Baltimore Free Farm grow, and leased it to the group, which is now trying to buy it from Pojman's estate, Thomas said.

Many of Baltimore Free Farm's seedlings are in other community gardens, and students from area public schools and colleges visit Ash Street Garden often on field trips, Thomas said.

The group is creating a vibe that people from all walks of life are drawn to as volunteers and even as residents, he said.

"There are people moving into the neighborhood to be close to this," said the bearded Thomas, who wore one of Pojman's old T-shirts while tending the composting bin June 19. "We're not just oatmeal-eating people," he said. "The city needs to look at us as professionals. We have a vision for developing (the site) that is practical for the neighborhood. This is not just our farm. It's everybody's farm."

Helpful controversy

Thomas said the city, which champions sustainability, must decide "what kind of development the city wants to see in the neighborhoods. Does that development always have to look like new houses?"

Hampden Village Merchants Association President Benn Ray, said he supports Baltimore Free Farm, an association member, in its bid to keep using the land.

"It would be a shame if the city decided to sell it out from under them," Ray said.

Baltimore Free Farm members admit that losing the Baldwin Street lots won't make or break the garden, and that the controversy is helpful to them in publicizing the group and its workshops.

"Basically, we want to be a model in the city as far as learning how to grow your own food," Hooton said.