07/06/2012 10:01 am ET Updated Jul 07, 2012

Hantz Farm, Proposed $3 Million Commercial Urban Agriculture Venture Moves Closer To Land Deal WIth City Of Detroit

Detroit's urban farmers have been waving their pitchforks indignantly over it for years, but a controversial agriculture deal between the city of Detroit and a wealthy investor looks like it may finally be heading to market.

The Detroit Free Press reports that mayor Dave Bing's group executive for planning and facilities, Karla Henderson, is close to finalizing a sale that would allow the Southfield-based financier John Hantz to transform 175 acres of vacant east side lots into a commercial lumber farm.

The mayor hopes to close on the transaction -- estimated to be in the realm of $600,000 -- with his business, Hantz Farms, when city council gets back from its summer recess, according to the Free Press.

The deal seems to have had little input from Detroit's City Planning Commission (CPC), however, which operates under the authority of city council.

A letter from CPC President Marcel Todd, Jr. dated June 22 indicates that the commission had little forewarning of the upcoming transaction. They objected to an earlier deal proposed in 2011 because the city had few regulations in place to govern the commercial use of the land other than zoning codes.

WWJ Radio reports that Hantz Farms acquired three acres for its venture last year and used it to grow trees. It hopes to invest $30 million in the project and create the world's largest urban farm.

"The farm—if it works—will replace burned-out neighborhoods. There could be orchards in one area; timber, tomatoes, and peppers in another," said Hantz in a 2010 essay in the Atlantic magazine. "It will have a huge research component that will deal with aeroponics and hydroponics and breakthrough ideas in the new urban-ag industry."

Detroit's zoning laws would need to change in order for the enterprise to accommodate commercial produce.

Hantz speculates in the Atlantic essay that the farm could help Detroit become a new center for the design and manufacture of indoor growing systems -- a vision also recently articulated in a recent urban agriculture partnership initiated between Michigan State university and the city of Detroit.

The commercial farm has generated opposition from smaller-scale urban farmers who have branded his plan a land grab.

Malik Yakini, executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, and chair of the Detroit Food Policy Council, is one of the local leaders who is critical of the venture.

"They are driven by the profit motive," Yakini told A2Politico. "The current urban-ag movement is clearly steeped within the social justice movement and clearly is trying to empower people, communities, and community organizations. And none of that is on the radar of the Hantz project."

He added that he found the Hantz project problematic because so many of its key players were white men operating in a majority African-American city and also because they were not dedicated to using organic agriculture techniques.

Patrick Crouch, manager of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen's Earthworks Urban Farm echoed Yakini's words in a 2010 Model D article.

"Smaller (farms) fit within the fabric of a neighborhood," He said that a big commercial farm would become "a substitute for community redevelopment instead of being a catalyst for community redevelopment."

Flickr photo by MattBerggren