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Taking Root: Local communities seeing a surge in urban agriculture

"It's a really interesting way of fostering connections with your neighbors."

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Drue Miller wasn't thinking about adding a chicken coop or a beehive in the backyard of her Forest Hills home — until a neighbor began a movement to change the law prohibiting her from having either one on her property.

"It sounded interesting," she says, adding that now she and her husband are talking about both chickens and bees.

"I'm more pro-chicken than he is at this point," she says. "We're [probably] more likely to get the hives because it's less of a daily routine."

Urban farming, at least when it comes to honey and eggs, is gaining ground, local advocates say. Forest Hills Borough passed the new ordinance permitting up to four chickens and two beehives, with variation depending on lot size, late last month. Similar discussions are occurring in South Park, Findlay and Hampton Townships. At the same time, many in Pittsburgh are hoping they can spark changes to urban agriculture rules written in 2011.

"What we've struggled with over the last couple of years is the city code and city policy need to catch up to some of these new, sometimes unusual ideas for land use in the city," says Julie Butcher Pezzino, executive director of Grow Pittsburgh.

The organization is creating a task force to lobby for reforms, including allowing chicken coops on smaller lots (lots now need to be a minimum of 2,000 square feet) and revising a process that requires the approval of the city's zoning board.

"Not many people have gone through with applying for these permits," Pezzino says.

Indeed, says Stephen Repasky, president of Burgh Bees, a nonprofit advocate for beekeepers: "What the city has done is push us further underground."

Forest Hills, on the other, has benefited from other municipalities' experiences. The local permitting process mirrors that required of dog owners — but the law also requires that beekeepers be registered with the state and be regularly inspected and that chicken coops be aesthetically pleasing.

"We got a very good ordinance [in Forest Hills] that is fair," Repasky says.

Although just getting started, Miller is ready to share the resulting bounty and have a reason to talk over the backyard fence.

"It's a really interesting way of fostering connections with your neighbors," she says.

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