Knowledge is Power
Once you know what your zoning code says, you can make strategic decisions about whether and how to move forward. However, zoning codes can be complex and filled with legal jargon, making them challenging to decipher. Sometimes, they are just plain silent about particular activities. Other times, they outright prohibit them. What next?
This chapter provides a step-by-step approach to finding, reading, and understanding zoning codes. It highlights what to look out for and breaks down the common language used in zoning codes,
Step 1: Identify relevant issues from your business plan
Before diving into the zoning code, it can be helpful to take some time to review your business plan and develop an outline of issues you anticipate the zoning code might say something about.
While not exhaustive, critical zoning-related issues include housing, value-added production, agritourism, and construction. Basically, do you aspire to do anything other than traditional farming activities? Once you’ve identified some key issues, draft a list of specific questions to keep in mind as you locate and review the applicable zoning code.
The following can help get you started.
Business plan questions: What type of on-farm events or agritourism activities do you plan to host? What are the numbers: how many events per year; how many visitors or participants per event?
Zoning code issues: Are events allowed? If so, are there specific requirements for parking, noise levels, or infrastructure?
Business plan questions: What type of value-added products do you plan to produce or process? What activities will be involved? What infrastructure will be needed for processing, storage, or waste management? Do you intend to sell products directly from your farm or through other distribution channels?
- Zoning code issues: Is value-added production allowed? If so, are there limitations on processing activities or the amount produced? Are there requirements for lot size, storage, or waste management?
- Business plan questions: What type of buildings or infrastructure do you plan to construct or remodel?
- Zoning code issues: Are there specific height, setback, or design requirements in the zoning code? Are additional buildings allowed? Do you need to consider environmental impact assessments or conservation guidelines?
- Business Plan questions: Do you plan to house workers, visitors, or family members on the property? If so, how many and for how long? Are structures already there, or will they need to be built or remodeled?
- Zoning code issues: Is residential housing allowed? Are there capacity restrictions? Are there special health and safety guidelines for housing facilities?
Step 2: Locate your zoning code
To locate your zoning code, you’ll first need to identify the specific local government authority responsible for zoning and land use regulations where the land is located. This could be a municipality, county, township, or other local government unit. Neighbors and other landowners are great sources of information. Real estate agents, librarians, Extension educators and local clergy or elected officials may all be able to assist.
Once you’ve identified the local zoning authority, you can search their official website. Look for sections or departments related to planning, zoning, or land use. Nowadays, most local governments have made the zoning code either viewable or downloadable on their websites.
If you do not have internet access or would prefer to have a hard copy of the zoning code, you can call the local agency and ask for a copy. You may have to pay for it. Another option would be to go to your local public library and ask the librarian to assist you in finding a physical copy of the zoning code.
Questions to ask:
- Which municipality, county, township, or local government agency governs the property?
- Where can I find the zoning code or land development ordinance for the local government agency?
Special note: Many jurisdictions have comprehensive plans or land use plans that outline the long-term vision for development and land use. These plans often address agriculture and farmland preservation as part of the broader planning goals. Reviewing these documents can provide additional insights into the zoning intentions of a particular area. It may be helpful to locate and review these plans as you are reviewing your zoning code to be sure your long-term vision for your farm operation is congruent with these plans.
Step 3: Understand the zoning districts
Zoning codes divide land within a jurisdiction into different zoning districts. Each zoning district typically has its own set of regulations. It is crucial to understand the specific zoning district(s) that apply to the property you are or will be farming and/or using for a non-farming purpose (value-added good production, events, etc.). This information can typically be found in the zoning map or zoning district regulations within the zoning code.
Common zoning districts for farmland include Agricultural, Rural Residential, and Conservancy districts. Generally, different districts will be labeled by acronym on a zoning map (e.g. “RR” for Rural Residential) and you may have to find the acronym for your parcel on a zoning map and then separately cross reference the zoning code to find the acronym’s meaning.
Questions to ask:
- Which zoning district(s) does my property fall under?
- What are the regulations and restrictions associated with the zoning district(s) that apply to my property?
Step 4: Review allowed/disallowed and accessory uses
Once you have identified the applicable zoning district, review the zoning code to determine the allowed uses within that district. These are sometimes described as “permitted” uses. Look for sections or tables listing allowed or permitted uses. These lists outline the activities and land uses that are allowed without requiring special permissions or approvals. Rather than describing allowed uses, some codes list the disallowed uses. If the code lists only allowed uses, everything else is disallowed, and vise versa.
Oftentimes, zoning codes will refer to accessory uses. These are uses that are allowed only if they are connected to a principal permitted use. For example, in an agricultural zoning district, a principal permitted use is “agriculture use.” An accessory use may be “processing and packaging agricultural products.”
Tips: When reviewing the allowed and accessory uses, pay attention to any specific restrictions, limitations, or requirements related to agricultural uses, processing activities, or housing. Look for provisions related to the scale of production, types of products or processing activities, equipment usage, and occupancy limits.
Example clauses of permitted uses in an Agricultural Zone:
- Processing and Packaging: Processing and associated packaging and shipping of agricultural products accessory to an agricultural operation in which at least 50 percent of such products were produced, or where the resulting product is consumed or used in the agricultural operation rather than marketed for direct or indirect compensation;
- Residential uses: Parcels less than 75 acres may have one, one-family dwelling. Parcels in excess of 75 acres may have two, one-family dwelling units.
Questions to ask:
- What agricultural and non-farming activities are allowed in the applicable zoning district(s)?
- Are there specific provisions for non-traditional farming activities I plan to pursue? For example, are there any restrictions on the scale of production, types of value-added processing, or use of specific equipment?
Special Note About Urban Agriculture: Urban farmers will need to pay particular attention to their zoning codes. While some jurisdictions allow for agricultural uses in urban residential, industrial, or commercial zoning districts, they often include specific limitations. In addition, zoning codes will often require special use or conditional use permits for agricultural activities conducted in urban areas, particularly for activities involving animal husbandry.
A use that is permitted in a particular zoning district.
Conditional use Special use
A use that can be established in a particular zoning district if a Conditional Use Permit or Special Use Permit is acquired.
Step 5: Review conditional uses or special uses
In addition to allowed uses, zoning codes often include provisions for special or conditional uses. These allow certain activities to be conducted on a property with additional review and approval processes, often by securing a permit. The permitting process helps make sure certain obligations are met, such as a minimum amount of off-road parking, adequate restroom facilities or waste management, and attention to noise levels, among other concerns. Some conditional uses may also require a public hearing to be held before the permit is issued. The public hearing is an opportunity for neighbors to voice support or potential concerns for the proposed activity. It is critical to know in advance which activities will require such permits.
Tip: When reviewing the provisions for special or conditional use permits, note any specific requirements, limitations, or conditions that must be met to obtain a permit. For example, if hosting agritrourism events requires a permit, note any restrictions on the number of events, attendance limits, noise control measures, or parking requirements.
- Agritourism activities, including farm tours, pick-your-own operations, and farm-to-table events, are allowed subject to obtaining a special use permit. Off-street parking must be provided at a ratio of one space per three visitors. Noise levels must not exceed 60 decibels during nighttime hours.
- Construction or remodeling of agricultural buildings, such as barns and storage facilities, requires approval through a conditional use permit.
Questions to ask:
- Are there provisions for special use permits or conditional uses that may apply to activities that I plan to pursue, such as agritourism, value-added processing, housing, or new construction?
- What are the specific requirements, conditions, or limitations for obtaining special use permits or conditional use permits?
Step 6: Pay attention to definitions
Zoning codes often include definitions of key terms and phrases used throughout the document. These definitions can provide clarity when trying to decipher what the document actually means. If there is a term that you’re unsure about, be sure to see if it’s included in the definition section. Terms such as “agricultural activities,” “value-added,” and “agritourism” are sometimes explicitly defined. Going back to review and understand any definitions that are included in the zoning code helps make sure your overall interpretation of the document is accurate.
Tip: If a definition of a key term is not included or is still unclear, see Part II for strategies for seeking clarification.
- Agricultural Activity. Land used exclusively as a bona fide agricultural operation by the owner or tenant. The use of land for agricultural purposes includes farming, viticulture (grape production), fish culture, animal and poultry husbandry, and equine activities. Necessary accessory uses such as packing, treating, or storing of produce, composting and power generation from farm animal waste are allowed, provided that the operation of the accessory use is clearly incidental to the agricultural activity. The business of intensive swine feeding operations, garbage feeding of hogs, fur farms, or the raising of animals for use in medical or other tests or experiments, commercial slaughtering of livestock, poultry, fish or meat processing is excluded from this definition.
- Agricultural Activity, Limited. The keeping of farm animals in residential districts on lots with less than 3 acres. Apiaries are excluded from this definition.
- Agricultural Products Processing. Processing on the farm of an agricultural product in the course of preparing it for market. (This definition excludes agricultural value-added processing and farm winery).
- Agricultural Value Added Processing. Treatment that changes the form of a product grown on a farm in order to increase its market value with a minimum of 51% of the processed product being produced on the farm. For purposes of this use, the term “farm” includes contiguous and noncontiguous parcels within the county in active agricultural production that are owned or leased by the processor.
- Agritourism Enterprise. Activities conducted on a farm and offered to the public or to invited groups for the purpose of education, recreation, or active involvement in the farm operation. These activities shall be related to agriculture and shall be accessory to the primary agriculture operation on the site.
Disclaimer: The above are example definitions only. Do not rely on these for your purposes. They are included here only to give you an idea of how terms can vary. Every jurisdiction will have its own key terms and definitions.
Questions to ask:
- How does the zoning code define terms such as “agricultural activities,” value-added processing,” or “agritourism”?
- Do these definitions align with my intended activities?
Step 7: Review specific requirements for desired activities
Once you’ve reviewed the definitions, scan through the zoning code document to see if there are other sections, requirements, or restrictions that apply to the activities you are interested in pursuing.
Pay particular attention to environmental and health regulations. Zoning codes often either directly include environmental and health requirements or will direct you to another comprehensive regulation. Look for requirements related to waste management, noise control, accessibility, sanitation, and water usage.
Tip: If you are reviewing an electronic copy of the zoning code, one way you could go about reviewing for specific requirements is to search keywords, such as “agritourism,” “processing,” “dwelling unit,” “building,” or “structure.” Be sure to use the exact terms that were used elsewhere in the code, whether in the definition section or the permitted or conditional use sections.
Questions to ask:
- Does the zoning code include any specific regulations, requirements, or restrictions related to the activities I want to pursue?
- What environmental or health regulations may impact my activities, such as waste management, noise control, sanitation, accessibility, or water usage?
Remember, zoning codes can vary significantly from one jurisdiction to another. It’s crucial to familiarize yourself with the specific zoning codes and regulations of your area. If you run into challenges interpreting the zoning code or realize the zoning code sets restrictions or outright prohibits an activity you want to pursue, read on to the next chapter.