Urban agriculture and agriculture-like sample zoning text available to local governments in Michigan

Local government should encourage urban agriculture. But there needs to be proper safeguards and a consensus to balance agriculture activities without undesired impacts in the neighborhood.

Chickens in an urban setting. Photo credit: Mary Reilly
Chickens in an urban setting. Photo credit: Mary Reilly

A new publication is now available to assist local governments prepare zoning regulations for agricultural activities in urban, suburban, urbanish areas. The Land Use Series: “Sample zoning for agriculture-like and urban agriculture” has been published and available for download at this webpage. This Michigan State University Extension publication was a collaborative effort by over a dozen experts from MSU and MSU Extension in government and public policy, agriculture, community food systems, as well as assistance from municipal attorneys who volunteered their time to this effort.

This Land Use Series publication is to present a starting point for what aspects of agriculture can be regulated by local government. In the document is a sample zoning ordinance text amendment to be used to accommodate urban agriculture, agriculture in category 4 sites (as defined in the Site Selection GAAMP), in communities of over 100,000 population, and agriculture-like land uses.

It is anticipated that for any one community, the sample will appear to be overwritten. It is. The intent was to write it for use in large cities and rural townships covering all those bases. Intent is for a local government using the document to edit (mainly deleting) to craft a proposed zoning amendment for its own use.

This topic is relatively new to Michigan with likely changing law and improved science. To reflect those changes, the publication is labeled “draft”. That is to reflect that it will be regularly updated and changed. The user might want to bookmark the webpage where it is found so one can obtain the most recent version, rather than file a paper copy of the document.


The sample zoning is designed to be used in the following situations. It is not designed to regulate “agriculture” in rural zoning districts, such as working lands, agricultural preservation, agricultural, rural residential, and similar. In those situations, local regulation is often at least partly preempted by the Right to Farm Act (see the “prologue” article listed at the bottom of this article). The situations where this sample zoning presents a starting point for local regulation are these:

  • When the land use is agricultural-like. That is, it is not agriculture, but has some but not all of the characteristics of agriculture.
  • When the land use is within a municipality with a population of 100,000 or more. This sample would be the zoning ordinance amendment to be adopted to allow for urban agriculture pursuant to the Generally Accepted Agricultural and Management Practices (GAAMPs) provisions delegating such authority back to local government.
  • When the land use is within a “category 4 site for livestock operations” where local government can choose to allow, or not allow, animal farming and what types of animal farming pursuant to the Site Selection and Odor Control for New and Expanding Livestock Facilities GAAMP delegating such authority back to local government.
  • Certain aspects of farm markets (e.g., vehicle access and egress, building setbacks, parking (but not the surface of the parking lot), signs, beer breweries, bonfires, camping, carnival rides, concerts, corn mazes, distilleries, fishing pond, haunted barns/trails, mud runs, play-scapes, riding stables, and winery/hard cider associated with Farm Markets) pursuant to the Farm Market GAAMP provisions delegating such authority back to local government.
  • Other future GAAMP provisions delegating authority back to local government.
  • Local government authority that may be included in a proposed but yet to be written bill for an urban agriculture act.

Allowing agriculture in urban, suburban and urbanish settings can be an important new economic niche for a community. It is important for every local government in Michigan to give serious consideration to this, as well as how it fits with local foods, and similar interests which are growing in popularity and importance. This publication also presents suggestions for whom to involve in such discussions and how to achieve consensus in the task of balancing local food interests and neighbor’s concerns about such activates near them.

What became clear in the process of researching and writing this publication are the very important precautions and concerns that should be in place for these land uses. For example, one MSU professor helping with this project indicted “backyard poultry (chicken) operations shall not be located within four miles of an existing agricultural commercial poultry operation.” While the four mile isolation may seem excessive, it is very important for the protection of a commercial poultry operation from spread of disease (e.g., avian influenza) and biosecurity where a backyard flock is the source of a disease event.

Agriculture, even in urban settings, has pollution potential (from organic or inorganic chemicals, manure, fertilizers and so on). In rural settings agriculture following generally accepted agricultural management practices (GAAMPs) and having distances and large land areas as buffers can often effectively manage these concerns. But in an urban setting, it can raise additional concerns. For example often sewage treatment plants are not designed to handle such pollution, or not able to handle the anticipated quantity. The same concerns can be extended to storm sewer systems, storm and sanitary sewer systems which are not separated from each other, and wellhead protection areas. Thus, local concerns should focus around how this aspect of agriculture is handled. But our experience watching communities’ work on this is often overlooked issues such as this one. Not to do so could result in serious problems with environmental laws governing sewage treatment, drinking water and non-point pollution.

The sample zoning is full of these types of issues – all designed to prompt local government to think about them, see the recommended solutions, and help local government determine which types of agriculture can be allowed, where, and which regulations are appropriate. Obviously one does not just take the sample zoning text and adopt it. It first takes careful review, discussion and making public policy decisions.

The publication is 30 pages, outlined as follows;

  • Introduction and use of the publication
  • RTFA explanation
  • Some background on substantive due process
  • Use and editing of the sample zoning text
  • The Sample zoning ordinance text
    • Definitions
    • Basic rules, as to when the ordinance regulation applies versus when RTFA & GAAMPs applies
    • Regulations that apply to all agriculture-like, etc.
      • Soil testing (contamination)
      • Nutrient storage, etc.
      • Buffer, chemicals
      • Other topics
      • Water, storm drains, sanitary sewer, runoff
    • Regulations that apply to all crops
      • Specific to community garden, market garden
      • Specific to rooftop and indoor farming
      • Specific to bees
    • Regulations that apply to all animal
      • Specific to poultry
      • Specific to small farm animal
      • Specific to large farm animal
    • Regulations for Aquaculture
    • Regulations for farm market
    • Other ordinance detail
  • Additional Resources on general urban agriculture topics, soils, storm sewer etc., crops, compost, bees, poultry, farm animals.

For more information:

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