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lawrence harmon

City Soil eviction stinks, and it’s not the fertilizer

A pitchfork rebellion is underway in Boston as supporters of urban agriculture rise up against efforts by state officials to evict City Soil, a small but highly regarded composting business, from a parcel on the border of Roslindale and Mattapan. The battleground is a roughly 1-acre patch along American Legion Highway where City Soil hopes to build an “ecovation center” to combine yard waste, zoo manure, and food waste. The goal of the eco-innovation project is to create finished compost while generating enough bioheat during the process to run a year-round greenhouse for growing fruit, vegetables, and flowers.

Composting is a chemically complex process. In Boston, it can be politically complex, too. The City Soil controversy pits business against business, environmental activists against state environmental officials, and even state agency against state agency. At a Wednesday meeting with City Soil supporters, state environmental secretary Richard Sullivan was trying to untangle the mess, which is largely the creation of public agencies under his control. Failure would be especially embarrassing to the Patrick administration and the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs as they prepare to ban commercial operations from sending food waste to landfills as part of the state’s climate action plan.

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City Soil is owned by Bruce Fulford, who has provided decades of quiet leadership to environmental activists involved in efforts to transform trash-strewn lots into urban farms, create green jobs, and grow and distribute healthy food in low-income neighborhoods. The state owns the land where City Soil operates, but the parcel for many years has been under the control of the nearby Franklin Park Zoo. Fulford, 57, leases portions of it from the zoo for both his small composting business and the planned ecovation center. Earlier this month, he received a letter from zoo vice president Robert George demanding that he vacate the portion of the parcel slated for the ecovation center as of May 17.

The eviction notice prompted immediate outcries from dozens of environmental activists, ranging from a small organic restaurant in Roxbury to the powerful Conservation Law Foundation. For years, they have relied on Fulford’s support and expert advice on organic gardening and urban agriculture. And they are not about to see him get pushed around by bureaucrats. Protest messages have poured into the offices of the governor and environmental secretary in recent days.

A powerful new constituency is growing up around the urban agriculture movement in Massachusetts. It will only grow larger as more people opt to eat local foods and lessen their dependence on industrial food production. Smart politicians should take notice.

The case itself has a large and complicated root system. An abutting business, the Woburn-based Landscape Express, lays claim to the contested parcel as part of its wider contract with the state Department of Conservation and Recreation to compost leaves and brush removed from state parks. In sending out the eviction notice to City Soil, the zoo is siding with DCR and Landscape Express. Meanwhile, another state environmental agency — the Department of Agricultural Resources — is backing City Soil with a grant to create the “ecovation center” on the same parcel.

There are plenty of bad feelings to go around. Fulford, who was one of the unsuccessful bidders for the DCR contract, questions the entire bidding process. Landscape Express president Greg Kaknes said he has been unfairly cast as a villain by some of City Soil’s overzealous supporters. And neither Fulford nor Kaknes appears willing to budge from land they say is critical to the success of their respective operations.

Normally, this is where a reasonable person steps in to check the site plan map that delineates the boundaries of the property covered in the contract between DCR and Landscape Express. But DCR, in its wisdom, failed to include one. Thanks for nothing.

Secretary Sullivan needs to adopt the role of Solomon and split this land in a way that ensures that City Soil’s demonstration project can go forward. Gates and entranceways to the property must be configured to accommodate customers and allow truck deliveries to both City Soil and Landscape Express.

American Legion Highway already hosts a large complex of community gardens and a variety of plant and gardening stores. The addition of City Soil’s “ecovation center” would not only complement this activity but elevate it to another level. And if Massachusetts officials are serious about diverting food waste to energy-generating and composting facilities, they should be twisting themselves into knots to accommodate City Soil’s project.

For starters, they should toss the eviction notice into the nearest recycling bin.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.
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