High Tunnel Policy Progress

Growers can celebrate the passage of new legislation that will decrease their costs. As of February 21, growers across the state will no longer see high tunnels factored into their real estate tax bills. In the past, high tunnels were taxed as building structures, elevating growers’ costs.

But what exactly are high tunnels, and how does this help growers? The winter is obviously a difficult time for growers. High tunnels help. High tunnels cover crops with a temporary protective material, such as plastic, in order to protect them from inclement weather conditions and harmful chemicals. In layman’s terms, these structures are usually referred to as “greenhouses” or “hoop houses,” and they enable growers to extend the growing season into the colder months. Under severe weather conditions, high tunnels control temperatures to allow crop bulbs and seeds to be stored in the ground.

Bill Lamont and the Penn State Extension High Tunnel Alliance have brought high tunnels to Philadelphia en masse. Today, the Penn State Extension program has aided in the construction of 15 such high tunnels in Philadelphia (some of which are in middle of construction). All together, these structures help farmers to increase crop yield.

Tax costs are not the only burden faced by growers. As of August 2012, the Philadelphia zoning code treats high tunnels as permanent structures if they are up for longer than 180 days. To comply, growers must obtain building permits, requiring submission of plans signed and sealed by a registered design professional (e.g. an architect or engineer) at significant cost.

However, the Vacant Land Subcommittee of the Philadelphia Food Policy Advisory Council is now working with the Department of Licensing & Inspections to develop a better system. The goal is to create an EZ Permit, much like the City now uses for people who want to build fences and decks. Under this model, growers would apply for high tunnel EZ Permits. As long as the high tunnel meets the permit’s specification, the grower would be exempt from building permit requirements, such as a formal construction plan. You can find more information on EZ Permits here, and we will keep you posted about the status of a high tunnel EZ permit.

The progress doesn’t have to end here. A third statewide bill is currently awaiting passage by the Pennsylvania State Senate to further reduce the financial burden on growers. This bill, which has been passed by the House of Representatives, clarifies that high tunnels are not subject to the Uniform Construction Code. We encourage you to reach out to your state senators to express your support for the bill so that we can continue our already significant progress.

Grounded In Philly

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