Farmer, neighbors tussle over ‘demonstration’ designation

0
Pamela White

Update: County OKs permaculture classes at farm on 63rd

Zia Parker lifts a piece of old
carpet to reveal a thick layer of compost  below. She scoops up a
handful of moist, rotting leaves, crumbles it in her palm. Several hens
rush forward and scratch at the leaves. They already know what Parker
is trying to show a reporter — that worms are hidden beneath the
rotting leaves, alive and well despite the frosty weather.

“The show’s over girls,” Parker says, gently shooing the hens away and lowering the carpet back into place. “That’s enough.”

The
landscape on Parker’s two-acre farm may be bleak, the trees and bushes
bare, but beneath their blanket of leaves, the worms are busy turning
last summer’s vegetation into rich nutrients for next summer’s plants.

This
compost bed — one of many — is part of Parker’s permaculture operation.
Having worked with the Peace Corps in Africa to build sustainable
agricultural operations suitable for the desert, Parker, a massage
therapist, has been teaching permaculture — sustainable farming in tune
with a specific climate and landscape — for many years. She bought this
property, located at 6481 N. 63rd St., in order to start a sustainable
farm and to teach permaculture classes. Last year, she applied to the
county for designation as a demonstration farm and began the long
process of going through a limited impact special review. Over the past
few months, she has worked with the county to address traffic and
parking problems, decreasing the scope of her plans, which at one point
included a “demonstration kitchen.” (The demonstration kitchen lessons
will be held in the kitchen at Niwot Market, which sells Parker’s
herbal and honey products.)

For a time Parker felt certain her
application would be approved. But now her plans have hit a snag. Four
of her neighbors object to her plans to teach classes on her property,
citing concerns about increased traffic, parking and the potential
disruption of the neighborhood caused by the classes.

In
response, the Boulder County land-use staff last week recommended
conditional approval of Parker’s request, requiring that she cut the
size of the class in half from 20 students to 10 — a reduction in
teaching income that would render the class unprofitable for Parker.

“I’ve
already cut about 70 percent of the income from the current proposal,”
she says, “and they’re saying I need to cut another 50 percent.”

{::PAGEBREAK::}

Parker’s
property is her key to economic viability. She runs a bodywork
business, Willow Way Wellness, from her home. From her point of view,
sustainable agriculture is part of the healing that needs to happen in
the world today. Both bodywork and permaculture help people to live
better lives that are more aligned with nature, she says.

Willow
Way sits on a plot of agriculturally zoned land that stretches in a
slender rectangle from North 63rd Street west toward the mountains.
Parker’s residence sits no farther from her neighbors’ houses than the
average residential home; most of her land is behind the house. And
although it’s a relatively small plot, it’s clear that Parker takes
sustainable farming seriously.

In the front yard, lawn has
given way to “forest guilds,” symbiotic plantings of fruit trees and
plants that attract pollinators, repel harmful insects and put nitrogen
into the soil for the trees to use. Plastic barrels collect runoff from
the gutters for use in the yard. A cold frame made of clay, straw and
recycled wood from ReSource sits not far outside the back door next to
a simple solar-powered dehydrator.

“We’re always looking for what’s the cheapest way we can teach people to save energy,” Parker says.

A
frozen koi pond doubles as a bioremediation project, its water filtered
during the warmer months through sedges, rushes and reeds that
transform the ammonia from fish excrement into useable nitrogen for
plants.

“We need
to learn how to purify water,” she says, explaining her motivation for
the project. “We need to learn how to do it on a local level, on a
backyard level. We don’t do it; nature does it.We just need to work with nature.”

Nearby,
hens scratch in the dirt, rushing to the fence when they see Parker.
Not far away beehives sit dormant, their occupants waiting for warmer
weather. Compost beds are everywhere, covered with bits of old carpet
and bagged leaves. Plastic sheeting covers a half dozen hoop houses,
little greenhouses that help extend the growing season. Inside one,
spinach leaves poke up through the soil.

Anyone
interested in the Transition Movement, organic farming or sustainable
agriculture would find Parker’s backyard to be a paradise. Parker
bought the land because she felt it would be the perfect place to set
up a permaculture operation, including classes. That’s one reason she
left the confines of the city behind.

She’s
already taught permaculture classes from her land. Last year from June
to October, students carpooled to her house to get their hands dirty,
practicing what they learned on her farm. At the time, she received no
complaints from her neighbors, she says.

In
her application to the county, Parker is asking permission to teach 20
students in a class that would meet two Sundays each month from June
through October. The class would also meet on two Saturdays and six
Thursday evenings during that five-month period. Participants would be
required to carpool.

She
would also like to teach the basics of permaculture to children, with
two classes of 12 students that would meet in five-day blocks during
the summer.

The
county has received dozens of letters supporting Parker’s plans. But
four of her neighbors, including one who had initially agreed to teach
the chicken component of the course, oppose the designation of
“demonstration farm.” County documents show that the bulk of their
objections revolve around possible traffic and parking problems. But
they also questioned whether the classes would be disruptive to the
“small, residential area of their neighborhood.”

A drive down North 63rd might leave one wondering what small residential area the neighbors are talking about —
or how 20 students could possibly disrupt it. The row of four houses is
separated from IBM, with its sprawling complex of buildings and parking
lots, by a narrow strip of greenbelt. To the south is Coot Lake, its
parking lot busy during daylight hours with joggers, hikers and people
walking their dogs. To the north is the intersection of 63rd Street and
Monarch Road. To the west is open land.

North
63rd cuts through this interface of agriculture, industry and open
space, bringing heavy traffic, especially during rush hour, as people
from the surrounding area and Longmont commute to and from jobs at IBM
and in Boulder. The berms erected by every resident on the stretch
testify to the nature of the noise created by cars and trucks.

Still,
county staff had their concerns, especially about parking. As a result,
the number of parking places on Parker’s property was decreased to 10,
and those 10 spaces were reconfigured to allow safe entry and regress
in case of a fire or other emergency.

When
it comes to traffic, the county’s transportation staff noted that most
of the car trips for Parker’s classes would occur during off-peak
hours. But despite Parker’s assurances that carpooling is required for
the course, they rejected the notion that neighbors could depend on
carpooling as a long-term solution to limit traffic.

They
also noted that the houses are close together and that parts of
Parker’s land are exposed to the neighbors. That’s what led them to
recommend that the number of students be cut from 20 to 10 for the
adult classes and from 12 to 10 for the children’s class.

“Their stance is baffling to me,” Parker says of those neighbors who’ve objected to her plans.

She
plans to put in berms with ponderosa pine both to improve the alkaline
soil and also to screen the back part of her property from view,
something she says the neighbors have requested.

“They
want screening,” she says. “But screening from what? From the
activities of gardening? I don’t think that’s what the [county land-use
code] is for.”

{::PAGEBREAK::}

Berms and screening
aside, Boulder County’s comprehensive plan is meant, in part, to
promote sustainable agriculture. Policy AG 1.02 states, “The county
shall foster and encourage varied activities and strategies which
encourage a diverse and sustainable agricultural economy and
utilization of agriculture resources.”

From Parker’s point
of view, she’s trying to do exactly what the county says it wants to
promote. Willow Way teaches agricultural methods that reduce waste and
preserve precious resources, especially water. More than that, it
offers county residents a way to learn more about food production and
how to grow large amounts of food in small spaces, enhancing the
security of the county’s food supply. It’s also in sync with the
growing interest in urban homesteading and organic gardening.

“So many people are feeling the need to get back to the land,” she says. “And we need to do that.”

The
Board of County Commissioners will review Parker’s application and
county staff recommendations on Thursday, Jan. 28, at 3 p.m. in the
third-floor hearing room at the Boulder County Courthouse on Pearl
Street in Boulder. Parker is hoping that a show of support from the
community will enable her application to be approved without the
decrease in students.

Regardless of the outcome, Parker intends to teach her class, even if it means moving the class to a different location.

“It would be a shame, because everything we need is right here,” she says.

“That’s why I bought the land.”

Parker thinks the county needs to reconsider its priorities if it hopes to promote sustainability.

“They
need new codes that support sustainability or a process to override
codes in favor of sustainability,” she says. “When there’s doubt [about
land-use policies], they should default toward sustainability.”

For more information on Willow Way Wellness go to www.willowwaywellness.com.