Vacant lots transformed into gardens and playgrounds are bright spots in Baltimore neighborhoods - places for residents to talk, play and even grow food. But the people who clean, plant and tend these plots often have no guarantee that their hard work will not be cleared to make way for development.

Now the city has crafted a procedure for residents to permanently claim open spaces. Under a plan approved by the city's spending board yesterday, community groups that nurture a vacant lot for five years will be able to form a land trust to buy the plot for a nominal fee from the city.

"We're trying to make the best use of our vacant land, especially when the community has stepped up and taken some responsibility for it," said Julie Day, the city's acting assistant land resources commissioner.

Community groups have revitalized about 200 vacant lots across the city, creating expansive gardens along Duncan Street in East Baltimore and a horseshoe pit in Pigtown, among other projects. About half of those lots belong to the city, Day said.

Miriam Avins, a Better Waverly resident, became an impassioned advocate for community gardens after the organic plot she and her neighbors cultivated was nearly lost to developers in 2006. Avins founded a nonprofit organization, Baltimore Green Space, and received a grant from the Open Society Institute to work with the city to draw up a protocol for turning land over to community groups.

Residents who wish to purchase a site from the city must create a nonprofit organization and demonstrate that the land is being used for a fruit and vegetable garden, play area, neighborhood gathering space or in some way enhancing the community, under the plan approved by the Board of Estimates. If the land belongs to an absentee landlord, the city will attempt to acquire it through tax-sale foreclosure and sell it to the community group.

If a land trust fails to maintain a plot, the city will look for another group to manage it and, if one is not found, sell the property. Baltimore's land trust plan is modeled on similar projects in other cities, Day said.

Forty-four lots, the site of long-demolished houses on Duncan Street, were sold to Baltimore Green Space for a dollar each, in a deal approved by the spending board yesterday. For two decades, community members have grown strawberries, beans and tomatoes on the plots - an oasis of green in the city's dilapidated Broadway East neighborhood.

The gardens and converted lots reduce spots for criminals to loiter and inspire residents to improve their communities, said Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who represents the Bettter Waverly community and has long-championed the land trust movement. "It brings all the neighbors together. The kids come out. And it's pretty."

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