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Over the past decade, the U.S. has seen population growth in rural areas across the nation. People are moving closer and closer to properties with horses and other farm animals. This trend will probably continue to grow for the foreseeable future.
As a result, the horse industry is seriously affected by these zoning conflicts. City-dwellers moving to the country to escape city life are not usually familiar with horses and other farm animals. And, they don’t always appreciate these animals the way a seasoned farmer or homesteader would. This is typically where zoning conflict begins and it can end up as a dispute at the local government level.
To avoid these zoning conflicts and to be prepared if they do happen, anyone with farm animals on their property should get familiar with zoning laws. This might seem like a tall order, but we have broken down everything you need to know in this article.
Believe it or not, having any type of “livestock” animal on your property is extremely regulated at the local, state, and sometimes even federal levels. Here’s a breakdown of what you need to know if you’re planning on doing any sort of “homesteading activities” on your property.
This is a question that actually comes from my family’s own personal experience: decades ago, my parents bought a small bit of acreage on the edge of town, without a neighbor in sight. They’ve had horses on the property since the early 90’s.
Now, our state of Oklahoma is experiencing a rare influx of out-of-state transplants moving to Oklahoma, looking to buy small “hobby farms”. This occurrence has raised new questions on both sides:
The side note here: I’ve kept my own horses on my parents’ property for decades now. So, until we moved to Fairway Stables™, this question had a direct impact on my own horses: so, you better believe I researched this question thoroughly. If someone was going to tell my parents they had to move their animals, I was going to be prepared to fight. So, below is the compilation of notes I compiled for my own family that I wanted to share with you all.
Let’s start with the basics: what is “zoning”?
As we explain here, “zoning” is the term for a city, village, or township’s right to enact regulations within their legal boundaries. These regulations are called “ordinances.” Ordinances are in place for the “public’s health, safety and welfare,” and cannot be arbitrary, i.e., they must be consistent with the city’s “master plan.” Ordinances help regulate the way cities and homes are built to stabilize property values and control population density.
Who plans and adopts zoning ordinances? City-appointed committees, usually known as a zoning board or planning board.
How are zoning ordinances passed? The Zoning Board first evaluates the need for the proposed ordinance, and then presents it to the board. The majority of (if not all) cities and states have a “notice requirement” allowing for the public to submit their own “public comments.” Zoning boards fall under the realm of Administrative law, which requires notice and public comment; the hope is, of course, that the public actually receives the notice! Once the committee holds a public hearing (taking into consideration the “Public Comment”), they will make a final vote.
Knowing which zoning classification you fall under will help you find the right zoning regulations to follow.
For starters, an agricultural zone is an area used for the farming industry. This classification is used to prevent farmland from being used for other purposes. This way, people in the farming industry have the land and space they need to keep their operations running smoothly.
There are different types of zoning classifications when it comes to having farm animals on your property: namely, A1 (agricultural use), and A2 (agricultural and rural residential uses).
Residential zones are areas that house any type of residential dwelling, whether it be single-family homes or apartment buildings. There’s a lot more variety when it comes to living spaces, meaning that the regulations for residential zones may vary depending on the particular type of residences on a certain plot of land. To clarify the rules for residential zones, these areas are divided into sub-districts, usually based on the number of households per lot.
To find out what zoning classification your property falls into, check out this zoning map. Knowing if your property is a residential zone or an agricultural zone is important, but make sure you are staying up to date on your city’s development plans. Make an effort to show up to site plan reviews that could affect your area.
This is the question to be answered: why should you have to care how your property is zoned? After all, if you own the property, why does anyone have the right to tell you what to do with it?
As unfair as it may seem, they do, and there are many examples of zoning laws that could impact what animals you have on your property:
This is a great question. I’ll tell you one of the most common ways it arises in suburban settings: miniature ponies. Most people look at these adorable animals and think, what harm could it possibly be to put a few in the backyard? After all, they’re smaller than some dogs, quieter than roosters, and easy to contain. What’s the problem?
The problem is, many cities would classify miniature horses as a “horse.” After all, they are equines, and are therefore not allowed on residential property.
Before you purchase any animals, check the website of your local zoning board. It should tell you not only what animals are allowed, but also, what they may be used for. For example, your zoning laws may allow you to have horses as pets, while restricting your ability to board or train horses.
Something important to keep in mind: What these zoning regulations allow could vary based on the purpose of a particular animal, for example, if they’re just pets, rather than if they’re used in commerce. In other words, don’t just quickly scan the list to see if “chickens” are on your city’s zoning list. If you want to sell some eggs, make sure you’re allowed to use the chickens in a way that makes money.
Honestly, this is something that I recommend you research ASAP. You might be surprised just how much your city regulates. For example, in the city of Tulsa, you can only have one horse per acre (if you’re zoned Agricultural Residential), but there are no specifications as to how many horses you can have in total. In other words, you can have 10 acres in the middle of town, and only be allowed 1 horse….
Here are some common scenarios I see that run into zoning conflicts:
The list could go on and on. You might remember my friend’s story about wanting to sell some eggs from The Complete Legal Guide to Homesteading. In order to find out what agricultural activities, like selling eggs, are allowed on your property, you’ll need to do some research.
To avoid zoning conflicts down the line, take these few extra steps of research to make sure that not only your animals are allowed, but that the activities you plan to use them for are legal in your area, too.
For example, you have a legal duty to keep them fenced in properly. You can read up on your duties and liability as a farm animal owner in our The Horse Owner’s Complete Guide to Liability.
This is for two main reasons:
In other words, common sense reigns supreme: don’t let your animals out, or wanderers in!
An equine law-related note: if you have horses on your homestead, look at getting equine insurance. This will protect against both big vet bills, or times when your horse might accidentally hurt someone.
This sounds extreme. But, if there are too many smells or noises, your neighbors could have a legitimate cause of action against you for private nuisance or trespass. This is an extreme example, of course, but a judge could very well side with them. Your neighbor could also attend one of the public hearings your zoning board puts on, and petition to not allow your type of animal.
The short answer is yes.
So, here’s the thing about zoning: nothing is permanent. Remember, zoning laws are originally passed through a series of votes. This means it can continue to be modified in the future.
Your property’s zoning status can be amended through a “Proposed Zoning or Land Use Change,” initiated by either property owners or the municipality itself. In other words, the city, or people living within your city, can petition to rezone land, and hinder your ability to have farm animals.
A change in zoning classification could also be the culprit that prevents you from having your farm animals. For example, if your property is zoned as agricultural, someone could petition to change it to a residential zoning classification, affecting your ability to keep your farm animals on that property.
Sometimes this is intentional, other times not. For example, a developer may petition to rezone a tract of land once used for riding trails to build a subdivision. Other times, more people simply move to your area, as my own family experienced, and the new residents do not want animals like horses in the neighborhood.
Yes! Keep in mind, you always have the ability to fight a new zoning ordinance before it happens! Planning & Zoning Commissions are the ones that approve these changes. They must first conduct site plan reviews that consider Commission and public opinions. For farm animal owners wanting to preserve their land and right to own animals, these site plan reviews serve as a chance to voice their opinions on large developments.
But, if the ordinance has passed, and your property is rezoned, you do have options. Namely, you can apply for what’s called a variance.
Not only is this an option if your property is re-zoned, but also applies if you want to do something that involves setback laws. For example, if you want to extend your barn, or build a new chicken coop in the backyard that’s technically too close to the edge of the perimeter (according to your city’s setback laws), your municipality may grant you a variance to do it anyways.
Every municipality will differ slightly on what variances they allow, but variances will be issued by a zoning board of appeals. If you do file for a variance, know that they will be examining your specific case to determine the hardship an ordinance causes you. If they agree with you, they have the power to let you deviate slightly from the law.
Variances are usually granted when the ordinance you’re seeking a variance from would create a hardship or difficulty for you. They are typically only granted to minor deviations from an ordinance. This means that the change is specific to your property and will not impact the appeal of the community. They’ll be balancing these factors with your neighbors’ considerations as well. Typically, the board will give notice to your neighbors, giving them a time and place to attend a hearing and oppose your variance, if they wish.
Having farm animals on your property can be a dream come true. Knowing what zoning laws apply to your land and animals can help you avoid a nightmare. Be sure to stay up to date on petitions for rezoning in your area. Refer back to this guide if any zoning conflicts ever arise from having farm animals on your property.
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