A Des Moines couple’s urban farm runs into an expensive roadblock of Polk County regulations
Spring planting is underway inside the greenhouse at Dogpatch Urban Gardens, marking what should be the most hopeful time of year for owners of Des Moines’ only urban farm.
But when Eric and Jenny Quiner talk about all the changes they have to make this year on their acre lot on Meredith Drive to stay in business, the strain is palpable.
“The stress has almost been the biggest hardship in all of this,” Eric Quiner said, his voice quivering.
A March 19 meeting may tip the scale on whether the couple’s two-year-old business ultimately succeeds or fails. That’s when Polk County’s Board of Adjustment will weigh in after planning and development staffers determined the Quiners’ new building amounts to a commercial storefront, not just a farm stand.
With that change comes a mix of building, landscaping, health and safety requirements for the Quiners that they say have necessitated spending about $75,000 more than expected.
The Quiners’ larger-than-a-pumpkin patch business is unique to Des Moines, but their struggle is not.
As bootstrap urban farm businesses and nonprofits have sprouted up around the country in urban centers, some have run afoul of local requirements guiding everything from food sales to water runoff to building codes.
Some cities and counties in recent years have enacted urban farming ordinances or zoning codes because the operations don’t neatly fit into regulations for residential, commercial or agricultural land.
Boise, Idaho, Denver and Kansas City, Mo., have made urban farming a permitted land use. As yet, Des Moines and Polk County have not.
New territory, lots of questions
The Quiners feel they were open and thorough, asking questions about what they could do with the land when they first explored buying a house (now rented as an Airbnb) and property in an unincorporated part of Polk County in 2015.
That fall, Jenny sent an email to Bret VandeLune, planning and development services manager for Polk County public works, saying she and her husband wanted to grow food, sell on site, distribute to local restaurants, participate in farmers markets and start a CSA down the road.
In the spring of 2016, county building inspectors approved the couple’s plans to build a pole barn on the site to wash, sell and display Dogpatch produce.
In August, the couple asked if they would need a public restroom if they also decided to sell prepackaged meat out of that building.
VandeLune said they did not, as long as they still met requirements for a farm stand, which primarily meant that at least 50 percent of the products sold had to be grown on site and that the business did not stay open more than half the year.
“For a farm stand, selling produce and other products we will not require a public restroom,” VandeLune wrote. “Adding the sales of prepacked pork would not change that requirement, as long as the farm stand requirements are being met.”
VandeLune’s email did not address the on-site pole barn, where neighbors came to buy produce.
The county’s demands grew, however, after the couple applied for a conditional-use permit that would allow them to have a sign and hold special events (such as weddings) at the farm.
(A 2010 agricultural tourism ordinance allows people living in residential districts to sell vegetables and hold special events.)
Eric Quiner said they were required to hire an engineer to do a professional site plan, at a cost of about $13,000.
After that plan was completed, planning and development staffers realized the business was more than a typical Iowa farm stand.
After that, they say, the Quiners were told they would have to add restrooms and paving and parking to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act.
They also were told they’d have to add a septic system and fencing and plant dozens of trees, when their produce needs as much sun as possible.
The Quiners also had to agree to construct a berm in accordance with a flood plan for the area, athough they’d already spent $7,500 adding drainage tile to mitigate the threat of their crops flooding. The couple plans to add a holding tank to capture rainwater for food production.