A South Salem neighborhood hopes that the City of Salem will make an administrative change so that a jewel to the community can be preserved. They say the possible redesignation of a small, key property is consistent with city goals.
The issue was raised when the city accepted an offer on a similar, adjacent parcel.
The land in question is Sunnyslope Community Garden, an .86-acre property that has existed since 2012 on city-owned land in the middle third of a strip just west of Liberty St. SE, between Lockwood Lane S and Cunningham Lane S.
The garden sits on one of a handful on the city’s “surplus rolls,” which means it is considered to have little value and the city earns no income from it.
In the case of this particular strip, according to Kristen Rutherford of the City of Salem’s Urban Renewal Agency, the land was designated “surplus” several years ago. “The process was run through Public Works Department,” she says, “because this was part of a prior bond project.”
Because surplus properties net no taxes, cities are generally motivated to find a buyer for them. In the case of Sunnyslope garden, the city has also donated all the water and licenses the land to Marion-Polk Food Share (MPFS) at no charge.
Neighbors value the garden. They cite statistics showing that of the households renting plots, 40% self-report as food insecure and 30% describe the garden as their primary source of produce in the growing season. A majority of gardeners report donating food to local food pantries. The garden has enough space to grow food for 7,700 meals.
Tyler Shockley, a first year gardener, speaks for many when he says, “There’s a need to preserve our green space, whether with parks or gardens.”
Alan Alexander is Chair of the Sunnyslope Neighborhood Association. Not a user himself, he believes the garden adds significant value to his part of town. “It took a lot of work to get the garden started, and it’s been a complete success,” he says, citing the “phenomenal utilization of the garden by a huge range of residents.”
In the last 60 days, buyer Brandon Fahlman bid on the southernmost third of the parcel, on land just south of the garden, south of Mize Road South. The offer, for 50% of Marion County’s assessed value, was accepted by the city. Fahlman’s plan is to put 5 single-family homes.
Alexander says Fahlman approached neighborhood association members to discuss the particulars of his vision and, “we welcomed his sharing of the plans for that property. We agree [Fahlman’s homes] would compliment the neighborhood.”
Neighbors became alarmed, however, when they learned that yet another developer might be interested in the plot where the garden itself is located. This individual recently made a verbal inquiry to the city about the garden land, but has yet to submit a bid.
It’s the city’s right to sell, says Jared Hibbard-Swanson, Farm and Garden Program Manager for MPFS. The Food Share, he says, has “a great community garden partnership with the City of Salem… The City generously provides land and water at no cost [and]… when we utilize city property, we always understand there is a chance of land being sold or developed.”
Hibbard-Swanson notes that even though south Salem has a reputation for affluence, the area is not immune from food insecurity. “Sunnyslope garden is especially important… because it is the only garden within easy walking distance of several low-income housing units.”
On October 20, locals crowded into the Sunnyslope Neighborhood Association monthly meeting, eager to share their concerns over the possible loss of the garden property. One, Victoria Schaaf, Youth Director for Westminster Presbyterian Church, testified that, “When the garden was built 4 years ago, our… students moved hundreds of pounds of compost and laid wood chip paths… Our students learned how to grow seasonal crops and use sustainable and organic methods of growing [and] learned about the importance of the honey bee and its role in the growth of plants and the greater ecosystem.”
In preparation for the meeting, Troy Dawson sent comments to Alexander. Dawson stated that he and his mother had gardened for two years. “We are on a fixed budget,” he wrote, “so the food we harvest from our plots is a great supplement… the Community Garden is a needed source of fresh, healthy food for Salem’s neediest residents… it would be shameful to lose what currently serves as a rich habitat for a myriad of plant and animal species, from microorganisms, worms and pollinating insects, to birds and more. I am not sure we can afford to continually mow down our flora and fauna to replace them with yet more building projects.”
Rutherford attended the meeting on behalf of the City’s Urban Renewal Agency. She offered suggestions for a way to remedy against a possible sale of the garden land. She told neighbors that the quickest way to potentially preserve it was to have it officially removed from the city’s list of surplus property. This would mean it would no longer be for sale, and the Neighborhood Association might work though the city to have it redesignated, possibly as a public use area.
“There would be funding implications,” Rutherford says, since a sale would help recoup the amount the city has spent on the property. However, she cites several approaches neighbors might take, including writing a letter she would move forward to the City Manager’s office, or making a request during the public comment period at a city council meeting, asking council to take action to remove the “surplus” designation.
The city has no obligation to approve this change, but if the effort was successful and the land removed from “surplus,” Rutherford says, the city “would not seek to recoup any of the costs” it has invested in the land.
“Liberty is a busy street and it has 500 apartments either under construction or being planned,” notes Sunnyslope Neighborhood Association Land Use Chair Evan White, who hopes the process of redesignation will be successful. “The garden is a patch of greenery that anybody in this part of town drives past. It creates a kind of neighborhood ambiance, with people and families happily working and growing vegetables and fruits.”
Alexander notes that official City of Salem goals, “list quality of life as a priority, and this is a quality of life issue. Taking this land off the surplus rolls would deny the city money, but would provide an asset to the city, the community and the neighborhood.”
He and other neighbors are already at work drafting their correspondence.