In South Kensington, a nonprofit goes to court to keep its community garden alive - Generocity Philly

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Mar. 24, 2016 9:18 am

In South Kensington, a nonprofit goes to court to keep its community garden alive

In the 1980s, the Catholic Worker turned an abandoned lot into a community garden. Now, that garden is being threatened by development.

La Finquita.

(Courtesy photo)

Nearly 30 years ago, faith-based Kensington nonprofit Philadelphia Catholic Worker started a garden in a vacant, blighted lot on North Lawrence and Master streets.

The property had been abandoned by a company called Pyramid Tire & Rubber, and after the business shut down in 1956, their lot became a neighborhood dumping ground.

Catholic Worker had opened up the garden to the community, and with soil from Fairmount Park, the space became a neighborhood hub where healthy food was made accessible for the community and Catholic Worker’s soup kitchens.

It became known to the neighborhood as La Finquita — or, “The Little Farm.” Now, that little farm is being threatened by a developer looking to rake in big bucks. It’s their worst nightmare.

According to Amy Laura Cahn, an attorney with The Public Interest Law Center, developer Mayrone, LLC paid Pyramid’s beneficiaries approximately $30,000 for the land. But here’s the thing: Pyramid may not own it anymore.

Under the state doctrine of adverse possession, once an individual or organization has occupied property for 21 years, the title to the land is technically theirs. So, even though there’s been a fiscal transaction, Cahn and Catholic Worker are hoping the loophole will save La Finquita.

Last week, The Public Interest Law Center, in partnership with Saul Ewing LLPfiled civil action in the Court of Common Pleas on behalf of Catholic Worker to assert the nonprofit’s legal ownership of the land.

“We had hoped it wouldn’t necessarily come to this,” said Cahn, adding that the Catholic Worker and the legal team would be able to acquire the land through the newly-established Land Bank. But adding titles to the Land Bank has been a slow process, and the lot La Finquita occupies has not been added.

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Contact information for Mayrone, LLC and Pyramid Tire & Rubber could not be located for comment.

“There’s a continuity here,” Cahn said. “The amount of amendments to this soil and the richness of the soil is such an investment onto itself.”

Needless to say, the gardeners are on edge.

“It’s really worrisome to us. It’s not like we can just pick this up and move it somewhere else easily,” Shazana Goff said. “We’ve had 28 years of people working the soil.”

"People use the space to feel like they're outside the city for a few hours."
Cliff Brown

The garden’s importance is twofold, said Manager Cliff Brown.

“It’s a green space,” he said. “People use the space to feel like they’re outside the city for a few hours.”

Plus, he said, it’s important for the community to actually see where their food is coming from.

“It’s great to have an urban farm where people in the city can come and see the vegetables washed and bundled for sale.”

Gardeners at La Finquita can purchase the food for half-price. Throughout the season, approximately 50 volunteers are in and out of the garden. That’s a lot of people who rely on fresh food.

As of this past January, Cahn said, $55,000 in property taxes were owed by Pyramid. Mayrone paid $30,000 for the land, and, according to Cahn, agreed to pay what was owed to the city.

“The next step is to get the court to decide on the issue of the legal title for the land and figure out from there how to address the tax burden,” she said. “This garden is entitled to a nonprofit real estate tax exemption [for as long as they’ve owned the property]. That’s an issue that needs resolution.”

The loss of the garden would be a detriment to the neighborhood, the gardeners said.

“We’re feeding the neighborhood,” Goff said. “To take that away would be a sin.”

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