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Zoning Laws a Challenge to Farms Wanting to Grow
By Jane Eckert
As published in the Fruit Grower News & Vegetable Grower News, May 2007
There was a time, I’m told, when your land was your land. You decided what you needed for your business, and you built it. Sometimes your neighbors came to help with the barn raising.
Over the decades, governments have been formed, and laws have been passed intended to do what is best for the “common good of all.” When it comes to property, these laws generally create “zones,” geographic areas where certain standards have been imposed intended to protect the value of adjacent properties. But as many farmers are finding out, the laws which were intended to protect the property values of some, may, in fact, be forcing others into the collapse of their business and way of life.
Recently I conducted an online survey asking producers if zoning restrictions were holding them back in developing their businesses. Over 50% of the producers that responded said “YES,” zoning has become an issue deterring their ability to grow their income.
Not too long ago, farms were able to expand their businesses, perhaps adding agritourism enterprises, pretty much with the blessings and support of the community. Neighbors and local governing bodies allowed the farmer to “fly under the radar” if you will, permitting whatever was necessary in order to keep this vital food grower sustained.
But needless to say, we farmers don’t enjoy that understanding any longer. The urban sprawl is creeping rapidly towards the farmland, and those neighbors equate acreage with wealth. They have no understanding or appreciation for how truly difficult it has become to support a farm and family.
Here’s the story I heard again and again on this survey.
Realizing he can barely survive in cut-throat pricing with overseas farm commodities, a farmer wants to establish a market on his land to sell fresh fruits and vegetables directly to the public. His move is motivated by a desire to get a fair price for a superior product.
His new neighbors, however, are often either naïve, or they choose to ignore the farmer’s financial plight. Some may even be hoping that the farm will be forced to sell, allowing more urban growth to gobble up beautiful rolling hillside.
So the zoning codes are “stretched out” to include the farm land, or conditional ordinances are imposed that don’t necessary apply to the farm situation. To build new facilities, the codes require the farm to finance road improvements leading to the property. Other ordinances require flush toilets, even though customers may only be there for a short time to purchase fresh produce. Regulations limit the size and location of signage attracting customers to the farm. Some zoning ordinances flat out forbid the creation of a bakery, a restaurant, or a bed and breakfast enterprise “outside the accepted zones.”
Putting aside the commercial developers who really would like to see the farm driven out of business so they can take his land, I think most of the general public and governing bodies simply don’t know us, and don’t understand what we do, and how we struggle to survive.
This survey reinforces the facts: in order to succeed in growing our farm businesses, we must educate city, county and state governing bodies so that they become a partner in agritourism, instead of an adversary.
Those farms that tried to do what they wanted to do without getting zoning approvals have gotten themselves in a lot of trouble and have paid big legal bills.
Those that did try to get zoning approvals have often faired no better.
It seems that many city, county and state governments don’t really understand that agriculture has changed since the turn of the century. Some don’t appear willing to learn, either, yielding to the pressure of the urban developments into the countryside. The need for increased local taxes seems to far outweigh the survival of a few individual farms that are in the way of urban growth.
The agricultural community is in the minority. There are approximately 2.0 million farms in the U.S. and 300 million people. We no longer have the same clout to impact our politicians as we once did.
Our local and state leaders need to better understand our businesses. They must be helped to understand that growing the farm business creates new jobs and new income for the community. Even more important, they must understand that growing the farm income is essential to keeping the farm intact—and with that, preserving the open space, and the scenic and intrinsic value of the communities. Those that escaped the city to enjoy the open spaces have to recognize their role in sustaining the rural culture they have embraced.
The farms responding to our survey indicated that communities need to rethink their comprehensive zoning plans as well as the conditional use permits in terms of how they are applied to farms. Does a seasonal U-Pick really need to comply with the same ordinances as a new year-round restaurant in town?
In some cases, the governing body’s very definition of agricultural land strictly forbids sales or entertainment on land zoned agricultural. In these instances, the farm seeking to add an agritourism business must seek to redefine the entire regions zoning laws.
A couple of states have taken some action, changing the state statutes regarding agriculture to include agritourism enterprises, which of course hasn’t always been compatible with what individual counties want to do.
Even well intended efforts can run astray. I recently learned of a Midwest state that seeks to strengthen their state branding through an “ecotourism” focus which they defined as “conserving the environment and improving the well-being of local people.”
However, as part of their definition, they stated that this meant “those who do no intrude on the landscape (obstruct the view; pollute with light, noise, smells, etc.; disrupt natural patterns of water, wind, wildlife, etc.) In other words, if we don’t change our farm, add to our enterprises, or seek to increase our income, we are welcome to stay!
This is exactly where we appear to come into conflict with our neighbors and local politicians. Though well intended, the lack of knowledge regarding today’s farming practices clouds the potential to be partners in developing workable compromise.
The solutions are not simple - but as the survey showed, it is incumbent upon the farmer to become active in the political process. While we would all prefer to leave the politics to the state politicians, local government, the farm bureau, and the state departments of agriculture, a solution is not going to happen unless we all get involved and provide our perspective. We must make our voices heard.
Let me end with a sincere thank you to all of the individuals who provided responses on this important survey. I appreciate the struggles that many of you are facing, and hope that your participation in this process has in someway helped. At the very least, know that you are not alone. For all of us choosing to enhance our businesses beyond production agriculture, we do need to work together to re-educate our neighbors about the problems, and the blessings, of our chosen way of life.
Jane Eckert is the founder of Eckert AgriMarketing (www.eckertagrimarketing.com), a full-service marketing and public relations firm that helps farmers to sell directly to consumers, diversify operations and become tourist destinations. She is also CEO of www.RuralBounty.com, a search directory for agritourism farms and ranches in North America. Jane can be reached at 314-862-6288 or you may email her directly.