Thousands of dollars and hours of labor have been poured into Boone Street Farm, an oasis on a quarter-acre of city-owned land a few blocks north of Green Mount Cemetery.
Through Baltimore's "Adopt-A-Lot" program, residents legally planted fruit trees, established a free community garden and erected a greenhouse there. During the summer, the farm employs a handful of young people.
"We have a significant amount of space under production now," said Cheryl Carmona, one of the founders of the farm, which sprouted where 12 rowhouses once stood. It's the farm's third growing season, she said, and most of the area is planted.
Still, despite the sweat and cash that Carmona and others have invested in the farm, it all could be taken away in a matter of days. The city lists many of its adopted lots for sale and has the right to sell them at any time, giving the people and organizations that adopted them as little as 30 days' notice to vacate.
As the city pushes for more development in neighborhoods, Adopt-A-Lot critics say, it's only a matter of time before conflicts emerge between builders, city officials and the residents who invested in vacant land when no one else wanted it.
"Even though they're working hard, they have no legal rights," said Miriam Avins, the executive director of Baltimore Green Space, about residents who adopt lots. "People put a lot of effort in, and they feel like they should have a stake … and the fact is, with Adopt-A-Lot, you don't."
Avins helped organize Baltimore Green Space, a land trust that buys city property to preserve it, after a community garden in Better Waverly faced the threat of sale.
It's not a mistake that the city is actively marketing some adopted lots for sale, Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano said. Lots for sale tend to be in neighborhoods where people may want to buy empty land, he said.
"People should not be spending large amounts of money on these lots without some assurance from us on the time frame," Graziano said.
The opaque legalese in the adoption agreement leads many people to assume they have more rights to adopted land than they actually do, said Becky Lundberg Witt, an attorney with the Community Law Center, which advises neighborhoods and nonprofits throughout Maryland. She prepared a plain English version of the Adopt-A-Lot agreement that people can review before signing on the dotted line.
"This needs to be a more transparent process," she said.
The Adopt-A-Lot contract is a license agreement. It gives the adopter the right to enter the land and use it for limited purposes, but it places many responsibilities on the adopter.
The adopter must pay for any permits required to improve the land, indemnify the city from lawsuits stemming from the property or the adjoining sidewalks, and keep the property clean and safe. The adopter also forfeits any right to be reimbursed by the city for improvements made to the lot if the city decides to sell the property.
The city agrees to provide 30 days' notice if the Adopt-A-Lot license is terminated. If a property being used as a garden is sold during the summer, in the middle of the growing season, the city will try to extend the license until the fall, but it makes no guarantee to do so.
"The level of sophistication varies enormously" among Adopt-A-Lot applicants, Avins said. Many individuals and groups adopt city lots without understanding the responsibility they're taking on and the limited rights they receive, she said.
Last month, the Baltimore Free Farm in Hampden sounded alarm bells after the city received a developer's bid for the land where growers, who had not adopted the lots, planted flowers and food. On Wednesday, Baltimore Housing said it would negotiate with the Free Farm for the sale of the land.
Through the Vacants to Value program, run out of the Baltimore Housing office, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake aims to streamline the rehabilitation and reuse of the city's many vacant properties. The program simultaneously pushes communities to take responsibility for empty lots, while seeking developers to build on or restore abandoned properties. The city figures that over 800 lots are now adopted.
"Really rapidly, we've been able to involve a whole lot of people in the adoption, revitalization of these lots," said Vu Dang, the city's chief service officer, who works to improve citizen engagement and simplified the lot adoption process two years ago.
Ultimately, he said, adoption is an interim solution, and city officials will decide what to do with the lots in the long term.
The city lists dozens of adopted lots for sale through Vacants to Value, including a large chunk of the Boone Street Farm. That distresses Carmona, who works full time on the farm and has invested more than $10,000, much of the money from Parks & People Foundation grants, into the property.
"This site is on the edge of some really up-and-coming areas," Carmona said. "Having it taken away would be devastating."