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 by Mary Reilly
Chickens in an urban setting. | Photo by Mary Reilly

When communities consider where to start on the topic of allowing select farm animals in more densely populated areas, Michigan State University Extension offers a helpful resource.  A 2015 publication assists local governments when preparing zoning regulations for agricultural activities in urban, suburban, and generally more developed areas. The MSU Extension Land Use Series: “Sample zoning for agriculture-like and urban agriculture” is available for download. The 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.

The Land Use Series publication presents a starting point for what aspects of agriculture can be regulated by local government. 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 Generally Accepted Agricultural and Management Practices [GAAMPs]), 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 overly complex, providing too much detail and regulation. It is. The intent was to write a sample ordinance for use in large cities and rural townships that covers all of the bases. The intent is for a local government to edit the document (mainly deleting) to craft a proposed zoning amendment for its own use.

The notion of urban agriculture and combining agriculture with other uses (e.g. with agri-tourism) is still relatively new in Michigan.  Annual reviews and modifications to the GAAMPs, new court cases, improved science, social acceptance, and evolving farm practices in urban areas means this document will continue to change. To reflect those changes, the publication is labeled “draft.”

Chicken “Tractor”, Manistee MI. | Photo by Mary Reilly

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: 

  • 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 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.
  • When provisions of the Farm Market GAAMP delegate authority to regulate certain aspects of farm markets (e.g. vehicle access and egress, building setbacks, parking - but not the surface of the parking lot, and signs). With full authority to regulate agriculture-like uses such as beer breweries, bonfires, camping, carnival rides, concerts, corn mazes, distilleries, fishing ponds, haunted barns/trails, mud runs, playscapes, riding stables, and winery/hard cider pursuant to the provisions delegating such authority back to local government.

Allowing agriculture in urban, suburban and generally more developed settings is an important new economic niche for a community.  MSU Extension’s Center for Regional Food Systems and the MSU-Detroit Partnership for Food, Learning, and Innovation provide key resources on developing integrated, sustainable food systems. It is important for every local government in Michigan to give serious consideration to strengthening local food systems.  This publication also presents suggestions for determining key stakeholders and how to achieve consensus in the task of balancing local food interests and neighbors’ concerns.

Agriculture, even in urban settings, has pollution potential (from organic or inorganic chemicals, manure, fertilizers, etc.). In rural settings, agriculture following 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. More impermeable surfaces in urban areas may mean that waste is more rapidly carried into natural waterways or sewer systems without the natural buffering provided by vegetation or relatively larger land areas in rural areas. Not considering animal waste and other chemical inputs 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 public policy decisions in the local context.

Not sure where to start?  The sample zoning publication is outlined here;

  • 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.

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