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Nonprofit Farmers Market Organizations Face DC Government Hurdles; Seek Relief

Accompanying images can be viewed on page 1 of the June issue 2017 issue pdf

By Larry Ray*

Do Farmers Markets Need a Government Ambassador to wade through the DC regulations and implementation maze?

DC residents love Farmers Markets. In fact, they demand more markets and the expansion of existing ones. But to obtain approval for establishing one, organizers must first deal with a wide variety of DC agencies, each with their own sets of rules: Department of Transportation (DDOT), Department of Health (DOH), Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), as well as Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANC).

In fact, it is so complicated that three years ago Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh introduced the Farmers Market Support Act of 2015 to create an office staffed to assist with navigating through the maze.

“As the number of farmers markets has increased in the District, many have experienced challenges with start-up procedures and working with the District to take full advantage of all our programs and support structures,” explained Councilmember Cheh at the time. “This legislation will create a farmers markets ambassador position to help streamline the regulatory process.” The ambassador position, according to the council member, would make it simpler for those interested in starting up a market to understand the regulatory process.

 As further outlined in Cheh’s 2015 press release, “The legislation will also help promote farmers markets in the District and create a fund to increase the value of SNAP and other nutrition benefits when used at farmers markets.”

“Farmers markets,” her statement emphasized, “are an important source of fresh, nutritious food for urban residents and a key asset of many neighborhoods. Farmers markets also help increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables in underserved areas and food deserts. Around half of the farmers markets in the District currently accept SNAP and other nutrition benefits. The ambassador could help assist the farmers markets that do not currently accept SNAP and other nutrition benefits in their efforts to work with the District to begin accepting these benefits. In doing so, more residents would be able to enjoy the benefits of the District’s farmers markets and the benefits of increased access to fresh foods in underserved areas.”

Her bill was referred by the chairman to the council’s health committee, but that committee took no action, not even scheduling a hearing and not even offering an explanation.

Just last year in response to another impediment facing the ability of these markets to survive, Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd introduced –- with members Mary Cheh (Ward 3), Brianne Nadeau (Ward 2), Vincent Gray (Ward 7), and Robert White (At-Large) — co-sponsoring Bill No. B22-454, the “Farmer’s Market Meter Fee Cap Amendment Act of 2017.”

This bill is in response to an issue brought to Todd’s attention by the operators of the Petworth farmers market, which is in his ward. Specifically, the parking meter fees charged in 2016 to the vendors who occupied those spaces on the closed- off portion of the street catapulted from about 990 collectively to about $9,000 in 2017 –- an increase of nearly 90%. (This is in addition to the public space usage fee charged to the market operators.)

Officials say that the reason for this precipitous increase because of the enactment by the Council of the “Fiscal Year 2016 Budget Support Clarification Temporary Amendment Act of 2016” which raised the meter rates on the streets where these markets set up from what had been 75 cents per hour to $2.30 per hour.

The Todd bill would cap the parking meter fee for vendors to a flat $50.

In testimony during an April 9th oversight hearing by the Council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment on the work of the Department of Transportation, its director, Jeffrey Marootian, commented on the pending Todd bill as follows:

“I would also like to take this opportunity to address B22-454, the “Farmer’s Market Meter Fee Cap Amendment Act of 2017.” We agree with the legislation’s intent of providing the community-based organizations that operate farmer’s markets with relief from parking meter fees that have the potential to negatively impact their ability to provide healthy and affordable food choices to District residents. It should be noted that the total revenue generated by the meter fees charged to farmer’s markets in FY 2017 was $157,839. While this may have been a significant burden for many of the markets, it accounted for only about three percent of total meter revenue—essentially a deminimis impact.

“However, we believe that this intent can be most effectively and expeditiously carried out by the Executive through a rulemaking. This approach will have the effect of immediately removing the potential impact that meter fees could have on markets that are about to begin operation this spring. In addition, DDOT believes that, for ease of administration, a full exemption from the meter fees would be preferable to capping fees at a certain dollar amount. The rulemaking is currently under Executive review. With this exemption in place, we do not believe there will be a need to pass the legislation currently before this committee.”

With respect to the director’s suggestion that the Todd bill is not needed, Joshua Fleitman, the Council member’s spokesperson, told The InTowner that Todd’s view is that the bill should be enacted into law as a way to ensure that this problem, even though resolved administratively, would be codified as legislation and not potentially subject to the vagaries (our word) of departmental rule-making.

And, indeed, Fleitman confirmed that on April 27th “DDOT promulgated new rules that fully exempt farmers markets from parking meter fees.” Further, he said, “This new regulation mirrors the intent of Councilmember Todd’s legislation, and immediately provided relief to Farmers’ Markets across the District. Councilmember Todd is proud to have led the charge on protecting Farmers’ Markets and their vital services to the community, and he will continue to advocate for the passage of this legislation to ensure the protections are enacted both legislatively and administratively.”

Robin Shuster, Director of both the farmers markets at 14th and U Streets and in Bloomingdale at and R Streets commented to this reporter about how “things have changed a lot.”

The DC farmers market movement is actually part of a national movement with some of the same regulatory issues. There are national organizations which promote this movement, such as the National Association of Farmers Market Nutrition Program (NAFMNP) founded in 1992, the National Farmers Market Association, and the National Farmers Organization.

There is also the Farmers Market Coalition which rates markets using metrics such as the average miles from farm to market, number of employees, and estimated number of visitors. The Coalition sponsors Farmers Market Week in August, this year between the 5th and 11th.

Conclusion: Is Implementation the Issue?

DC Resident Travis puts it this way: “So many DC problems seem to be caused by unreasonable DC government officials implementing rules and regs unreasonably. Then, a problem occurs and a DC Council member introduces another bill instead of focusing on the unreasonable person or implementation.”

A Council staff member observed that the Council “only has oversight over District agencies, the Council doesn’t run an agency and cannot require any regulation change without legislation. Legislation is the tool of the Council and, since agency directors are appointed by the Mayor, it would take a decision by the Executive to implement an immediate change.”

*Larry Ray, a Senior Adjunct Professor at The George Washington University School of Law teaching negotiation and mediation, is a former Dupont Circle and Columbia Heights ANC commissioner, as well as having previously served as President of the North Columbia Heights Civic Association and also of the 1905-established Columbia Heights Civic Association.

Copyright © 2018 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Larry Ray. All rights reserved.