There is in most Indiana counties a seldom-read document that can have an enormous impact on a farmer’s ability to farm.
And that document is the county zoning ordinance.
“You need to know how your county’s ordinance provides for agriculture,” said Greg Slipher, livestock development program coordinator for Indiana Farm Bureau. And, Slipher added, that’s true for both crop and livestock farmers.
“It’s far better to address any issues before they become controversial,” he said. “Our decision-makers don’t like to operate under fire.”
A particularly effective tactic, Slipher noted, is for the county Farm Bureaus to take an interest. He said most county ordinances can be found online.
“Get a copy, take a look at it and then have your county planning director attend a county Farm Bureau board meeting,” he said. “Ask him or her about your concerns.”
Such ordinances tend to consist of many gray and boring pages, but there are a few things that are fairly easy to check, noted Slipher, a veteran of many discussions across the state on this topic.
First, all ordinances have a contents page that allows interested parties to quickly locate the sections that address agriculture. But another section that should be checked is the one containing definitions – of “farm,” for example, as well as “agriculture,” “agricultural district” and “confined feeding operation.”
“Make sure those definitions make sense to you,” Slipher said.
How the ordinance treats agritourism is something else that sometimes needs to be reconsidered, he added.
Farmers who examine their county’s ordinance might find some surprises, particularly if that ordinance hasn’t been updated in a while. For example, height restrictions within an ag zoning district vary widely from county to county, with some counties having no restrictions and others specifying that structures can be no taller than 25 feet.
“That 25-foot restriction may have been OK back in 1970, but it really doesn’t work today,” Slipher said. “Another thing to consider is, do the setback distances make sense to you?”
To find a specific zoning ordinance, the best place to start is usually the county government website maintained by each county. Alternatively, a few counties maintain separate pages where they list all of their ordinances.
Slipher said that he would be happy to meet with any county Farm Bureau board to discuss the zoning ordinance and his impressions of it.
“If you, as a county board, aren’t paying attention, who do you think will?” he said. “We know the opposition is watching your ordinances.”