How Zoning Laws Can Affect Your Farm

November 20, 2021

Hi, I'm Paige, half of the duo behind Fairway Stables™

This website is the one I've been searching for, for years; a compilation of knowledge on all things horsemanship, including practical advice on how to start an equestrian business.

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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.

Today, we’re answering questions including:

  1. How is your property zoned? 
  2. Why should you care about your zoning?
  3. Are your animals considered “farm animals” under zoning laws? Why does this even matter?
  4. How to know what animals or “farming activities” are allowed on your property
  5. Which regulations apply to your animals?
  6. What happens if your neighbors get unhappy?
  7. What happens if your property gets rezoned? 
  8. How to petition to get rezoned 

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.

Everything You Need to Know About Zoning Laws

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:

  1. My parents’ “country estate” is now located in the middle of a neighborhood. Can they continue to have horses on their property?
  2. When people are buying up their 5 or 10 acre hobby farms, can they start the hobby farm they’ve always dreamed of? 

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.

How is your property zoned? 

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.

Is your property zoned as “residential” or “agricultural”? 

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.

Why does it matter how your property is zoned?

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:

Zoning laws can dictate:

  • How many animals you can have (whether or not they’re farm animals)
  • How many animals of a certain breed you can have (for example, can you have more than two cats?)
  • Whether or not you can let your animal (cat, dog, whatever you may have) off a leash in your yard
  • The maximum number of a type of animal per acre. (For example, the number of horses you can have per acre.)
  • The amount of “dwellings” per lot (yes, this can include structures like barns, sheds, and sometimes even chicken coops)
  • Restrictions on the height and placement of any structures
  • Setback restrictions  for fences, barns, or other structures
  • Whether or not permits are required for a certain type of animal.
    • Note: sometimes these permits, such as “horse permits”, require the owner to complete paperwork annually to stay compliant with the local zoning laws. Sometimes, adjacent landowners (i.e., your neighbors), can challenge the issuance of the permit, which is why it’s so important to have someone knowledgeable in equine law or homesteading law you can call. 
  • What types of fencing materials, fence height, or even fence style is allowed
  • What percentage of the property can be covered by a structure or buildings
  • Lot sizes if you have animals (such as equestrian district zoning)
  • Rules around whether or not horses can be on the property
  • And if they can, whether they can be stabled, used for public or business purposes such as lessons, training, riding, or boarding.

Are your animals considered “farm animals” under zoning laws?

Here’s why you need to know:

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.

What animals or “farming activities” do zoning laws allow on your property?

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:

  • Someone wants to have a beehive and start selling honey off their property
  • Like my friend, someone wants to sell some eggs from the small chicken coop in their backyard
  • Someone moves to the edge of town and has a few horses; every now and then they let people ride them…

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.

Here’s exactly what you need to look into:

  1. What permits and licenses are required?
  2. What setback laws are required for your type of “agricultural activity”?
  3. Are you required to get special permission from your city?
  4. Do you need a specific insurance policy to cover these activities?

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.

Keep this in mind when it comes to your neighbors and your livestock:

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: 

  • First, you’re liable for what could happen if they get out. For example, I grew up on acreage, and when I was young, my neighbors had sweet little goats. However, these goats were escape artists, and found out they could get through the fence connecting our properties. They had great fun chasing 6 year old me, head butting me for sport. No harm came from it (I don’t want to disparage the goats!), but, if they had instead run down the road, and caused an accident, my neighbor would’ve been responsible. Why? Homesteaders, or owners of any farm animal are responsible for keeping them fenced in, preventing the farm animals from preventing harm to anyone else.
  • Second,  owners of farm animals don’t just have a duty to protect people from their animals, but children, in particular. The best way to protect against either of these situations? Make sure you have a good fence with a child proof lock!

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.

2. If your farm animals are too annoying to your neighbors, they may be able to force you to remove them.

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.

Can your property get rezoned? 

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.

Can you do anything if your property is rezoned? 

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. 

A variance is essentially asking for special exemption to the rule.

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.

Conclusion

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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