(KCAW/Tash Kimmell)

While a group of green thumbs in Sitka doesn’t have a lease yet, the municipal assembly on Tuesday (9-12-23) gave its thumbs up to a revised proposal for a community garden on public land. And although the assembly wasn’t ready to offer the group terms, they didn’t hesitate to share some hard-won advice.

Sitka hasn’t had a community garden in nearly a decade since the Blatchley Community Garden closed in 2016. Now a group wants to bring it back in a bigger way. Supporters of the Sitka Community Garden Project see it as a step toward addressing food insecurity in the community. The project is a collaboration between the Sitka Local Foods Network and Transition Sitka, a nonprofit focused on sustainability.

Planning Director Amy Ainslie described the land to the assembly– it’s uphill from the post office on Jarvis Street, next to vacant city land and land owned by the Raptor Center, as well as the proposed site for the Sitka Homeless Coalition’s tiny home development. But the land doesn’t come without its challenges.

“We know that with some of the challenging terrain that we have in this area, and particularly with a lot of this property having muskeg…it’s going to take quite a bit more work to advance the design to get to the level of specifics regarding wetlands impact drainage, site design, parking, fencing, those kinds of things,” Ainslie said. “It’s a little premature, at this point, to evaluate the proposal on those bases. But I think it’s really helpful to kind of paint the picture of what this could look like in the future.”

The garden group seeks a long term lease of the property, and the project would be funded through government grants. The lease would help the group secure those grants. They plan to divide the lot into 51 larger plots and 15 smaller garden beds, which they would rent to local gardeners. There would be onsite water, toilets, and a teaching area. The gardens would be fenced and gated.

Across the board, assembly members were supportive of a community garden at the Jarvis Street lot. Assembly member Kevin Mosher said it was a small but necessary step.

“It’s not going to stop Sitka from having some sort of major problem if there’s a food supply issue with transportation getting here. It’s not going to solve that, but I see this as the beginning, or the seed for what could be,” Mosher said. “I really believe it’s a part of what Sitka does need. Food security is a really, really big issue, now more than ever, and I’m glad the applicants put their heart into this.”

However, Mosher wondered if they should put the lot out to competitive bid, to make sure they were doing things by the book. But assembly member Thor Christianson didn’t think so. 

“I don’t think it needs to go to competitive bid. And I think if we did that, it would be a waste of staff time,” Christianson said. “We would be saying we want to…put it out to a bid for community garden? Well, there’s only going to be one bid.”  

Christianson felt they could lease the lot to the group outright, if they establish that a community garden is for the greater community good. The assembly asked the city attorney to investigate whether they would be legally in the clear to lease the lot without issuing a formal request for proposals.

Mayor Steven Esienbeisz was for the garden, but wanted to be sure that any lease that allowed the city to opt-out if 20 years down the line a better use was found for the lot. And he had some advice for future gardeners as well… 

“I think it’s going to be extremely important to put netting over the top of this location. I had a boat parked right across the street for a while. And all the ravens from the transfer station absolutely destroyed my seats, they pulled anything rubber off of the boat, and caused quite a lot of damage,” he said. “So I think it’d be important to protect the carrots and the berries from all the ravens.”

Bear protection was noted as a concern too. The lot would be located near the city’s transfer station, where the scent of Sitka’s garbage has historically attracted a lot of wildlife. 

Depending on where they land, the assembly will either be voting on a lease or a “request for proposals” at a future meeting.