Calcium Springs Farm: Back to the Weeds 

Parley’s Canyon farm is shut down for breaching zoning ordinances.

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About a mile east of Harper’s Construction gravel pit in Parley’s Canyon and in the shadow of Mount Aire sits an entirely different canyon development. Organic farmers have planted vegetables and herbs on seven-eighths of an acre, hung faded Buddhist prayer flags, and raised a decorated maypole. But, the farmers are not celebrating.

Located on private property with landowner Ira Sachs´ support, Calcium Springs Farm is an experiment in community-supported agriculture. While preparing for their first year this spring, the farmers, about 10 veggiepaid volunteers and a handful of leaders mostly from Summit County, chose not to level the land, till much of the soil, or clear the natural vegetation, including weeds. The farmers want to disturb the land as little as possible as they grow vegetables for 16 families, each of whom paid hundreds of dollars for a share of the harvests.

They expected to receive a warm welcome by Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, whose green policies have become a county priority.

Enter Salt Lake County Planning Services, which issued a stop-work order in June for Calcium Springs because the farm did not secure the necessary permits for the temporary structures that support the operation. According to the order, the farm would have to dismantle all buildings by Aug. 5—in the middle of the growing season.

Because the farm was in a canyon, the zoning codes are especially restrictive— and intentionally so, according to the mayor’s spokesman, Jim Braden. Based on massive public input, the codes were written in 1989 with Save Our Canyons leading the charge. Braden said even virtuous users cannot disobey them.

Farm organizer Kurt von Puttkammer, a planner and architect, is upset, especially after farmers spent $6,000 of their own money and $9,000 from the crop-shareholder investments. He says the farm run by self-proclaimed “gypsy farmers” will disappear after one year.

“This is obviously not a county interested in sustainable living, community gardens or teaching people how to grow their own food,” he said.

The conflict centers on the county’s use of discretion in enforcing the zoning laws, as well as a philosophical gardening question: What is a greenhouse, essentially?

The farmers built a “high tunnel” based on specifications published by Utah State University professors. Their tunnel—also known as a hoop house—is constructed primarily with PVC pipe that stretches biodegradable plastic over a 6-foot arch. It functions as a greenhouse by moderating temperatures, but there is no fan, no electricity, no heater nor air conditioner. The farmers only need to open the doors each morning, and close them each evening. The tunnel is held together with duct tape, propped up with a few 2-by-4s and has no foundation.

“We got [an additional] five to six weeks on either side of the growing season [by using the tunnel],” von Puttkammer said. “In addition to that, we planted the same crops inside as outside. We’re getting 60 to 70 percent higher yield and better quality inside here. To lose this for no real reason is very, very painful.”

But, to Salt Lake County Planning Division grading specialist Greg Baptist, the tunnel is undeniably a greenhouse, which he says is expressly forbidden in the zoning code for the canyon.

On August 7, two days after their deadline, the farmers dismantled their high tunnel.

Von Puttkamer maintains he didn’t expect this enforcement and the farm is absolutely in compliance with zoning requirements. He is angry that the county ordered a dismantling of the farm rather than allowing them to exist while they seek the needed permits. That’s also what Brent Bateman, lead attorney for the state Office of the Property Rights Ombudsman, told City Weekly should have happened.

The county doesn’t see room for debate, however. “This is not a situation for discretion,” Braden said. “When it is written in simple language that greenhouses are not allowed, then they’re not allowed.”

But it may take more than “simple language” to explain why the tunnel is a greenhouse. One of the high-tunnel designers said he isn’t aware of any government regulations in the country that deem the high tunnel a greenhouse.

“They have not been considered greenhouses because a greenhouse is a permanent structure and has electrical service, gas lines to it, etc. I have two guys who can take one down in about two-and-a-half hours and put it back up in three,” said USU associate professor Brent Black. The high tunnel “is considered a temporary farm structure.”

To be sure, on June 19, when Baptist issued a stop-work order, Calcium Springs had run afoul of more regulations than just the one against greenhouses. They had two RVs, a TuffShed, a cooking tent, and a few other “structures” for which they lacked permits.

The county also does not like their road and says approximately the last 500 feet was cut illegally. The farmers are also collecting spring water from 200 or 300 feet above the farm and using it to dripirrigate their garden, which the county worried could harm a wetland. The farmers contend the spring water would have seeped into their soil anyway.

Baptist said that in the process for conditional-use permits, which the farmers sought, applicants can file “many appeals” of any denied permit.

“They could have come in and made application to install the farm, rather than installing the farm, then asking for forgiveness,” he said.

Von Puttkammer said they can’t afford the $5,000 price for a lawyer to help with the “many appeals,” and neither could any volunteer-supported, tiny farm. Yet, pursuing the appeals without a lawyer, he fears, is a doomed prospect. As a result, the farmers are seeking greener pastures in Summit County, where they hope to face less friction with regulators.

“Farming is hard enough,” Calcium Springs farmer Karen Wilson said, “without everyone against you.”

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Jesse Fruhwirth

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