Thinking for ourselves
By Shea Howell
July 8-14, 2012
John Hantz is aggressively pushing the city into handing over 1900 lots for $300 each. He is telling the city it would be a terrific deal for us. Hantz Farms would beautify blighted neighborhoods, put land back on the tax roles, and take over needed maintenance. He says it’s a deal the city shouldn’t refuse.
Last week Hantz and the Mayor hastily called a news conference to unveil the deal. The event turned out to be a bust, thanks to the intervention of some members of the City Council and the City Planning Commission. Both raised several concerns.
First, Hantz is talking about taking over nearly 200 acres of land. This is an area roughly ½ the size of the sprawling Poletown Plant. His proposal specifically excludes any agreement about future development. So if farming doesn’t work out, he is free to do whatever he wants with the land. Second, large-scale farming brings the city into conflict with state law and the Right to Farm Act. The Detroit City Planning Commission’s Urban Agricultural Workgroup and the Detroit Food Policy Council are working out these legal complications. This group has been working diligently to craft policies that reflect the wisdom and experience of the growing number of small urban gardeners. Now Hantz is proposing to bypass this process.
Hantz say he wants to move forward, get the land and get farming. He is increasingly being portrayed in the mainstream media as a patient, long suffering entrepreneur who only wants to “do good.” Of course the mainstream media is also casting some of the City Council, City Planning and community opposition as a bunch of foot dragging, resistant, hostile and uniformed folks who just don’t like business efforts.
We all have reason to be concerned about this proposed deal. First there is the basic question of fairness. Why should Hantz Farms be offered city owned land when that same offer has not been extended to anyone else? Why aren’t people who currently live, work, garden, and develop the East side given the same option to purchase city lots?
Second, what is the commitment of Hantz Farms to urban agriculture, self-sufficiency, self-determination and ecological justice? Much of the strength of the Detroit Urban Gardening movement comes from the understanding that a city that feeds itself, frees itself. How has Hantz shown any appreciation for the values that unite the urban agricultural community?
Over the last three years, Hantz Farms has proposed radically different visions for the use of the 200 Acres. First he said he wanted to do high tech, hydroponic agricultural production inside large, refitted warehouses. This complex, kept from public view, would include a small demonstration farm available to the community and schools to see older, hands on farming techniques. After meeting widespread objections, that idea was dropped and acres of fruit trees were proposed. Then people were concerned about rodents being attracted to the fruit, so Christmas trees seemed like a good idea. Well this would mean a lot of cutting and replanting, so now we are hearing about a hardwood forest.
The only constant in the Hantz Farm idea is his desire to own the land. He wants at least 200 acres. He wants it cheaply. He does not want to show residents concrete plans. He evades a development agreement.
Such behavior suggests Hantz is attempting to leverage the hopeful potential of urban gardening and the possibility of agricultural research as a cover for his own land grab.
Of course we should resist this. The City promises public meetings on July 11 and 12. Everyone concerned about the values that will shape our city should attend.