Urban and indoor agriculture are here to stay. People raise chickens in their backyards, corner lots serve as large community gardens, and neighbors are experimenting with bees and hops. As consumers focus on local products and public awareness of the benefits of agriculture grows, we will see more urban farms tucked into nooks, crannies, warehouses, and onto rooftops and decks. Urban farms reduce blight, increase access to healthy food, and can offer landowners a new revenue stream. Local governments may struggle to respond to this modern land use. Farmers—urban or otherwise—should keep local zoning in mind when considering whether to start or expand a farm. I’ve written extensively about the major impact zoning can have on an agricultural project (see: a general overview, being grandfathered in, livestock operations, the legality of a moratorium, religious rights in zoning, standing to challenge decisions, and state law which preempts local zoning). Zoning presents a handful of potential issues for urban or indoor farming, too:
Siting a farm is one of the most important decisions a farmer can make. This holds true for large modern livestock operations and small urban produce plots. Zoning plays a large role in determining the best site. The first step is to determine what the zoning ordinances say about urban or indoor agriculture. Many counties and cities make their local ordinances available online. The most likely challenge for an indoor or urban farmer is that a municipality’s zoning ordinances may not have been amended for years (or decades).
Even if updated, a local zoning ordinance may fail to anticipate indoor or urban agriculture. Agricultural was historically considered a rural use, so modern uses are sometimes ignored. This can be advantageous! Talking with urban agriculture advocates can help municipalities to identify which zoning issues are of concern and understand how to address them. Some localities may even be willing to create urban agriculture incentive zones which could offer property tax breaks for landowners willing to devote some portion of their land to agriculture. Other zoning ordinances may allow urban agriculture simply because such ag is not addressed—urban or indoor ag may fall under another category of permitted uses.
A local prohibition on sales is another potential stumbling block when starting a farm in a residential or non-commercial zone. While the zoning rules may not prohibit growing crops, building a greenhouse, or even selling produce to restaurants or grocery stores, they may prevent on-site sales. In this case, a special exception or variance may be required.
Likewise, traditional zoning use standards may address elements like property or building setbacks, hours of operation, accessory structures, odor, noise, fencing, lighting, composting, and whether animals are permitted. Some localities have standards for ag-related structures such as greenhouses, and others have added ordinances allowing for the keeping of urban livestock, including bees, chickens, and goats.
Some neighbors might oppose a new use, especially an unfamiliar one. Remonstrators may simply be NIMBYs, or they may believe that an indoor or urban farm would constitute a nuisance in a residential or commercial area. Consider whether lighting, pesticides, foot traffic, vehicle traffic, or loud noises would make the farm a problematic neighbor. Mitigate these issues where possible.
To conclude: you want to start or expand an urban or indoor agricultural use? First find a copy of your zoning ordinances. Find out whether the ordinances address your proposed use. If not, talk to the executive director. An attorney can help interpret how the existing ordinance should be applied to your proposed farm. Consider whether a zoning amendment is necessary or if your use fits into the existing language. Can you sell from your property? Do you need a special exception or variance to do so? What do the neighbors think? Meet with them ahead of time to discuss your proposal. Secure their support, if possible!
Zoning can be a challenge for urban or indoor farming, but with proper planning, urban agriculture can benefit the landowner and the locality. This article should not be construed as legal advice, but you should call your attorney to discuss the zoning of your next project.