Guest post by Ann Larkin Hansen
When we bought our farm in the early ’90s, we were too ignorant about rural living to worry whether a large cattle feedlot, a stock car racetrack, or other incompatible neighbors might move in next door. We’re lucky: Our neighbors are still wetlands and lake cabins, and things will probably stay that way.
A lot of farmers aren’t so lucky. In my years of working as a farm reporter and serving on our township’s planning commission, I’ve seen a lot of problems connected with land-use issues, from atrazine contamination of wells due to heavy pesticide use, to odor issues caused by large swine and poultry operations, to noise and light issues from frac sand mining and trucking. And there are a lot more operations looking for places to build in the country: “adult” entertainment, prisons, landfills, industrial plants, and housing developments filled with folks who object when you spread manure or have to run machinery late in the evening to complete a harvest.
Fortunately, land-use regulations allow a county or township to protect itself, for the most part, from land uses that injure or offend the current residents. Unfortunately, many townships and counties haven’t put good regulations in place and are caught by surprise when this makes them a target for CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) or other new neighbors who might not be a good fit for the neighborhood.
So, if you’re looking at land to buy, I highly recommend that you:
- Check out what land-use regulations are in place at both the county and township level, and also ask about what sort of changes might happen in the future. A lot of county and town websites now have their ordinances online; if not, call or stop by their office and ask to see them.
- Ask if there’s a Comprehensive Planning document for the area; this will tell you what’s expected to happen in the next twenty years or so in terms of road building and upgrades, power line corridors, residential development, and industrial development.
- Also look for other clues about your potential neighbors. Ask how many high-capacity wells have been drilled in recent years—these are used for large-scale agriculture. An increase in requests for driveway and building permits indicates a rise in residential development.
The land-use ordinances will also tell you what you will and won’t be allowed to do on the property you’re thinking of buying. If you’re planning on-farm sales or an agri-tourism enterprise, make sure that these activities are allowed. (I knew a couple who gradually built an on-farm greenhouse and nursery operation into a thriving business only to be told that they had exceeded what was allowed in their township. They had to shut down.)
It’s important to understand that there are three types of land-use regulation that are employed to regulate what and how landowners can use their land.
(1) Licensing and Nuisance Ordinances
The first type are called Licensing and Nuisance ordinances, and these are still quite often the only type found in rural townships. Licensing and nuisance ordinances do NOT regulate what can be done on land; they can only set rules, within reason, for how an activity is done, such as hours of operation.
And, as with all ordinances, the rules don’t apply if the establishment—say a gambling casino—was built before the ordinance was passed.
(2) Land Division Ordinances
The second type of land-use regulation are Land Division ordinances. These regulate how land can be divided for future development and may govern such items as whether a parcel must have road access, a good building site, and appropriate soils and space for a septic system. In our township, for example, we’ve written ordinances that require a minimum lot size of 2.5 acres and road access that meets state standards regarding distance from intersections and other driveways.
As with licensing and nuisance ordinances, land division ordinances do NOT regulate what can be done on a piece of property, they only establish minimum requirements for development.
Only the third type of ordinance, Zoning, regulates what can be done on property. It’s kind of a double-edged sword: Zoning ordinances, for the most part, protect you from injurious or obnoxious neighbors; they also limit what you are allowed to do on your own land. For this reason, “zoning” has become a dirty word in many rural areas since the thought of not being able to do whatever you want in your own private kingdom seems to trump the thought of someday having a casino next door. Too often, it seems, rural townships refuse to even consider zoning until something awful to live next door to comes to the area, and then it’s too late. In the last ten years, mining for frac sand has exploded in our area, causing a big scramble by area townships to get any regulation they can in place. Many of these efforts haven’t been successful.
Zoning works by establishing districts for different land uses, so incompatible uses, like a huge dairy operation, aren’t built next to residential subdivisions. In rural areas, zoning may include districts for farming, residential, recreational, industrial, and commercial use.
It’s important to look over the definitions of the districts since these vary considerably. Some zoning ordinances are quite detailed and regulate right down to what is allowed for things like fence height, while others are pretty minimalist.
There’s one further twist to land-use regulation. In some instances, such as wetland protection, state or federal regulations have been put in place, which override any local ordinances. In this case, counties and towns can’t override state and federal regulations, so it’s a good idea to ask at the county level what type of state and federal land-use regulations might affect the land you wish to acquire.
Ann Larkin Hansen is a farmer and author whose books include “The Organic Farming Manual,” “Finding Good Farmland,” “A Landowner’s Guide to Managing Your Woods” (with certified master logger Mike Severson and consulting forester Dennis Waterman), “Making Hay,” and “Electric Fencing,” all from Storey Publishing.