Is zoning good for agriculture?

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Land is almost always the major asset of an agricultural landowner. Zoning is almost always controversial because it has the potential to interfere with that asset.

Historically, agriculture in Ohio has viewed zoning negatively, as an unwanted regulation of private property rights. But current demands and competing uses for land are forcing Ohio agriculture into zoning issues.

As more and more people want to own, develop, or live near farmland, agricultural landowners may want to consider the question of what zoning can do for agriculture.

Statewide issue. Zoning issues are prevalent in many rural Ohio communities today.

* One county in southern Ohio is attempting to institute zoning to address the changes caused by substantial increases in residential development in the county’s rural areas.

* Residents of a zoned central Ohio township have fought out their frustrations with a zoning ordinance that allows large subdivision developments in the agricultural area.

* A central Ohio county faced with the prospect of a landfill is trying to quickly enact zoning, though it’s failed on several occasions in the past.

* In northern Ohio, one township has recently approved a zoning ordinance that creates agricultural districts in which agriculture is the primary use permitted in the area.

These examples illustrate how zoning can have significant impacts on a rural area, and how important it is for the agricultural community to understand zoning and its implications.

What is zoning? Legally, zoning is an attempt to make land use orderly and consistent for the purpose of protecting the health and safety of the community.

Individual property rights are circumscribed for the good of the “big picture” – the public at large.

The zoning process divides land into “districts” or “zones” according to land uses. Within a district, only those land uses and activities designated as permissible by the zoning ordinance may take place.

Permitted land uses might also be subject to restrictions concerning setback requirements, maximum building size, or minimum lot size, to name a few.

Majority rules. Zoning can’t exist in a rural area unless the residents of that area approve a proposed zoning ordinance by a majority vote.

Even where zoning exists, however, agriculture receives unique treatment under Ohio’s zoning laws.

The law provides that a county or township cannot, through its zoning regulations, prohibit the use of land for agricultural purposes or require building permits for agricultural buildings, with a few exceptions.

This “agricultural exemption” protects agriculture from being “zoned out” of a township or county.

The exemption ensures that agriculture can have a place in the Ohio landscape as long as there are agricultural landowners.

It does not, as some believe, exempt agriculture from all zoning regulations.

Down side. The disadvantages of zoning are well known to agricultural landowners. Zoning limits what a landowner can do with the land, with the exception of the agricultural exemption.

For an owner of farmland surrounded by development, zoning restrictions can affect the profits to be gained from selling the land for development. Procedural requirements to obtain zoning permits and administrative approvals can be burdensome, frustrating, and costly.

Even where zoning exists, it may be inadequate or unfairly implemented.

Deserve debate. But has agriculture in Ohio seriously deliberated the benefits of zoning?

Zoning can create agricultural areas that protect farming from conflicting land uses. It can separate agriculture from nonfarm residential development, Wal-Mart superstores, and shopping centers – land uses that make farming more difficult, more expensive, or more subject to scrutiny.

Zoning can create certainty in land availability, a benefit increasingly important for a state that is second in the nation for conversion of agricultural land to nonagricultural uses.

Need to be at table. Zoning won’t be good for agriculture, though, if it doesn’t address agriculture.

Research indicates that the “best” zoning is based upon a comprehensive assessment of a community’s needs and resources, and a clear foresight of the community’s future.

However, most zoning regulations in Ohio fail to consider the needs of agriculture and leave agriculture to coexist with other land uses that ultimately create problems for the long-term viability of farming.

Addressing agriculture requires that we approach zoning as “zoning for agriculture” and not as zoning that can’t zone out agriculture because of its legal exemption.

Speak up. If the agricultural community wants “good zoning,” it will have to participate in the development and implementation of zoning regulations.

Public participation is a legal requirement of the local zoning process. Community residents have a right to create, tailor, or object to zoning.

The one certainty we can state about zoning and agriculture is this: If agriculture is to have a say in whether zoning is “good” or “bad,” agriculture’s understanding of and participation in the zoning process is imperative.

(The author is director of agricultural and rural law in Ohio State’s Swank Program in Rural-Urban Policy.)

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