Councilman Chip Henderson

The Chattanooga City Council may open up new urban farming opportunities today.

Council members have grappled for weeks over whether to drop the 20-acre minimum lot size for farming to 5 acres — or even less, in some circumstances. The proposed amendments to the city's agricultural zoning rules would allow residents to keep livestock as long as the animals were fenced 25 feet from property lines.

John Bridger, executive director of the Chattanooga- Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency, explained the reasons behind the changes in a recent meeting.

"The minimum lot size of 20 acres is too stringent," Bridger said. "It does not take into account smaller urban farms. It left out opportunities for urban farms on smaller lots."

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Councilwoman Carol Berz

Research showed Knoxville has set a 10-acre minimum for urban agriculture properties, while Nashville requires 5 acres, he said.

Before adopting a 20-acre minimum, the city had a 25-acre minimum for agricultural zoning, Bridger said. That changed to 20 acres to accommodate rural farming properties that the city had annexed years ago, he said.

Councilman Chip Henderson has pushed for the possibility of making special exceptions for some lots under 5 acres or doing away with minimum lot sizes all together.

"There's certain locations, certain properties, where that's absolutely appropriate , even if they have less than 5 acres or — in some cases — less than 3 acres," Henderson said, citing an example of a Lookout Valley resident who wants to keep a horse on a 3-acre lot.

Bridger said resident who want to keep livestock on fewer than 5-acres could apply for a special permit.

Councilwoman Carol Berz, whose district includes Brainerd, Brainerd Hills and Tyner, voiced concern that such a measure amounted to making laws for the exception. For her district, which contains a lot of older 1- and 2-acre plots, that could mean people could raise cows in the middle of neighborhoods, she said.

"We have hundreds of thousands of people who may not need it, and yet we are automatically throwing them into a fight with their neighbors through the planning commission process and now an exception process," Berz said. "I think it's really unfair. It's an interference on the property rights they thought they had when they bought in certain places."

On Friday, the published city council agenda included an alternate draft ordinance that includes a special permitting process for urban agricultural properties less than 5 acres in size.

The proposed special permit measures stipulate such requests shall be considered if the site was formerly used for agricultural or farming purposes before annexation by Chattanooga. It also calls for such properties to contain "high quality agricultural soils' and for the United States Department of Agriculture to consider them to be prime farmland, among other requirements.

Contact staff writer Paul Leach at 423-757-6481 or Follow him on Twitter @pleach_tfp.