Alaska’s isolation, climate, and geography makes the 49th State one of the most vulnerable to natural disasters. One of the largest threats is a breakdown of imported goods, which represent 95 percent of the local food table. An earthquake immobilizing the Port of Anchorage or a volcanic explosion cutting off air travel could cause debilitating effects to the state’s food supply.
An effort in 2014 by Gov. Sean Parnell (R-Alaska) bolstered food stockpiles in the largest population centers of Anchorage and Fairbanks, but those efforts are still estimated to be expired in a week or less. While Parnell turned down low-shelf life emergency rations like Meals Ready to Eat (MREs), the caches still have a ceiling of about five years — meaning a costly re-upping twice per decade. Parnell allocated $4.8 million in 2014, plus an additional $3 million to fund helicopters to transfer goods to remote areas.
Atop the $4.8 million in maintaining the stockpiles, Alaska bleeds nearly $2 billion every year to pay to import the food, leading many yearning for a more sustainable approach to locally grown produce.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Alaska represents just 0.2 percent of national agricultural production in the United States. Even more underwhelming, 81 percent of that figure goes to feeding livestock. Hay is the state’s largest crop, with 20,000 tons harvested on 18,000 acres annually. Potatoes come in a far second. We’re dead last in vegetable production.
There’s the obvious reason for the state’s shortfall in local production. In locales like Anchorage, there isn’t a lot of property to dedicate to boosting production. Also, go outside right now. Alaska’s cold climes have historically limited local grow operations to very narrow windows in the summer. We might grow the biggest pumpkins, but they’re not going to be as plump and shapely — and definitely not as appetizing — in early February.
But the Anchorage Department of Economic and Community Development, through the Planning Department, is looking at two new ways of enlisting multi-unit residential properties and businesses in the municipality to the endeavor of increasing local production.
Title 21 is the city’s land use code. It has been going through a major rewrite over the past several years — one facet of which involves consolidating zones for public parks. Those rezoning efforts may potentially mean great things for the municipality’s farmers markets.
There are ten farmers markets in Anchorage. Some, like the Downtown Market and Festival, cater more to the tourist crowds that frequent the downtown area during the summer. Others, like the Spenard Farmers Market (which will celebrate its eighth year of operation in May), are all volunteer-run and serve the locals. The Spenard market even helps with food assistance programs, allowing patrons to use their QUEST card to purchase fresh produce.
But the new all encompassing public lands zone (PL), which covers public parks and greenbelts, did not list farmers markets as a permissible use, meaning the municipality’s markets have had to broker deals with churches, schools, and local business for use of their lots. This cuts down on parking and restricts where markets can set up shop. A new proposal, currently before the Planning and Zoning Committee, would allow farmers markets in the new PL zone — giving organizers the chance to apply for permitting to operate on parks and recreations land.
This risks dedicating land to farmers markets on properties that already endure parking shortages. Addressing the University Area Community Council last week, David Whitfield reassured people that parking would factor into the permit approval process. Whitfield is the Senior Planner and Platting Officer with the Anchorage Planning Division.
“Parking is one of the major issues,” he told a crowded room inside the University Baptist Church last week. “We don’t want to create a parking problem by adopting this ordinance. It’s going to be a case by case basis. What park can support a farmers market will be a big part of that.”
In Muldoon, where a new farmers market is trying to establish a foothold, the proposal is welcomed.
“This is important since up to 40% of Muldoon residents do not own automobiles,” Carla McConnell wrote in an email to the Planning Department. “We currently set up at Begich Middle School, but our end goal is to operate out of the currently in development Muldoon Town Square Park. We see this Park as a place for Eastside to have community in an area of town that is targeted for high density population in the Anchorage 2020 Plan.”
A second proposal currently being considered would provide an exemption to the current height limit on businesses and multi-family residential units (not including single or double unit housing) to allow for rooftop gardening, with a goal to “allow rooftop greenhouses to exceed the maximum allowable height of the district by fifteen feet.”
“It’s meant to incentivize the use of roof tops for growing food and will give use to that space that would otherwise be empty,” Whitfield explained.
The goal of this proposal is to make use out of the large and often vacant spaces that top myriad apartment complexes, condominium associations, and businesses, to allow for the construction of grow operations on their roofs. This could mean walled-in and heated greenhouses that operate year-round, as well as open air gardens that harvest crops over the summer months.
Rooftop gardening has taken off across the world, notably including a 2009 law in Toronto mandating them on industrial and residential buildings. They absorb rainwater, reduce heat during the summer, and yield harvests that add to the local food supply.
But there are concerns about what rooftop gardens might mean to public safety, as it relates to the burden they might put on the buildings that host them.
“Growing food on top of roofs in expensive and generally not a good idea. Rather than incentivizing rooftop gardening, we should, if anything, be discouraging it,” Ron Wilde opined in written comment to the Planning Department. Wilde is a structural plan review engineer with the municipality. His concern is that people may use the height exemption haphazardly and erect rooftop gardens with, essentially, cardboard and duct tape.
The purpose of a roof is to keep water and weather out of a building. Walking on a roof will degrade it. If a walking surface and a greenhouse are part of the original design, well, okay. But the cost of the building will necessarily increase to accommodate it. Why would one want to increase the cost of their building, when they can simply garden on the ground at no extra cost?
Whitfield fielded similar concerns at the University Area Community Council meeting, and emphasized that any proposed rooftop garden would have to apply for approval and would be accepted on a case by case basis, taking into consideration any structural issues.
“We recognize that there needs to be some flexibility in what would be permitted there,” he said. “This ordinance is not an ordinance to get around the height restrictions. So, when an applicant would apply to increase the height of their structure, or their greenhouse, they would have to come into the Planning Department and we would look at that.”
The Planning and Zoning Committee will review the proposals at their next regular meeting on Monday night at 6:30 PM at the Loussac Library in Anchorage.