February 27, 2011 8:15 PM   Subscribe

Are you a lawyer? A Michigander? A farmer? Or just someone who knows about zoning? Come in, come in!

I married a farm boy, and he and I have been looking for land/house on land, casually, for about a year. We are tied to Marquette, Michigan- he works at the college there, and I'm going there for grad school in a year or two. Our goal is to both work part time at nice professional jobs while farming, and, so far, knock wood, the pieces have been falling into place.

The land that we have looked at that is affordable frequently suffers from one of two major problems: it is either on a seasonal road, or very far out from Marquette. We currently live in a small city that is a nice, easy commuting distance from Marquette, and there is a lot that we love about living here, but we are a teensy fifth of an acre lot. There has been a plot of land for sale within our city limits since 2005. When I called the city about getting ag use approved for it's R-1 zoning last year, the zoning administrator was very unprofessional and rude. He said the zoning board would "never" approve such a use, and when I asked how I could contact the board members, he hung up on me.

Well, the land has just be relisted at $1000/acre, and the last year of looking has convinced us what a great deal it is, especially considering its proximity to Marquette and blacktopped road. Further pondering led me to the Michigan Right to Farm Act, and discussions with an ag lawyer who specializes in this act. What he told me is that we would be protected under MRFTA, but that local governments hate this law (because it strips them of their zoning authority) and often try to write tickets for civil infractions. He said they almost always lose, but it's a headache to get them to back off.

I also read that in Michigan, you can try to get parcels of 10 acres or more annexed outside city boundaries, since, by definition, such a large parcel is not urban.

I am pondering which route to take here- should I try to fight the zoning battle, to get the ag variance and/or get the land annexed outside city limits, or should I rely on MRFTA protections? The ag lawyer doesn't really deal with zoning, just MRFTA, so he suggested I find a local land use attorney if I opt to deal with the zoning issues.

Also, how much can I do just a prospective buyer? Ideally, I could *poof* get the land rezoned without a lawyer and prior to purchasing, but that's highly unlikely, given the reception I was given by the folks at the city office.

Has anyone else dealt with anything like this? Is there any information or tactics you would like to share, or any relevant thing that I should know?

Many thanks if you've read through this whole thing, even more if you can advise on this arcane problem.
posted by Leta to Law & Government (6 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know Michigan law or even your city's code, but here's how I'd approach it:

- First, see about getting a real estate agent if you are serious about buying the property. You may have to pay his or her commission or a slightly higher flat rate for such a small purchase price. The reason would be to see if you can get a purchase contract that's contingent upon the city changing the zoning to where farming is an expressly (as opposed to implied, like the MRTFA) allowed purpose.

- Second, go to city hall for the city with jurisdiction over the property and simply start asking around. It's a lot harder to hang up on someone standing in front of you. In Texas, zoning change requests are generally filed through the City Secretary's office so perhaps that person will have the necessary forms and a general list of requirements.

Michigan's property annexation laws are likely very different than Texas', but if you were here I would give up on getting the property de-annexed from the city.

Good luck!
posted by fireoyster at 9:36 PM on February 27, 2011

IANAL, zoning commissioner, etc. I did grow up in Michigan, and my family had to deal with zoning, which can be a treat.

The question I would pose to you is to know what type of farming you plan on doing? If you are looking to have 10 acres or less, that is not going to be a whole lot. If you are looking to grow some fruits and vegetables, or most plants for that matter, you should be able to do it regardless of the zoning.

The trick is when you get into livestock. In the two townships we lived in (across a county line no less) both had different rules for how much you could run. One township required 5 acres + 2 acres per animal over 1 (i.e. 4 horses meant 11 acres (5+2+2+2). The other required 10 acres to have livestock, period.

All areas vary, but more than likely if you are getting land in the city limits, you likely cannot have any livestock per ordinance, and the zoning board will flat reject you (sister's experience). Start by talking to a lawyer that deals with land, zoning, property, etc. and make an educated decision. Personally, I would not want to bother and would look for land outside the city limits.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 10:15 PM on February 27, 2011

Best answer: I know a bit about land use, but in California, so this may not be worth much.

Here, changing the annexation is a big deal involving a separate county agency called the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO). My assumption is that this would be a harder route than a variance.

For a variance, you should be able to find the procedures and commission members online. It would help to have staff on your side, if you can figure out their issue. I'm assuming that they want residences there, for the tax revenue? Read the general plan (and look at its map) online for hints into their view.

Applying for a variance is a political situation. Even in a pro-growth city, you may have some pro-farm advocates who would support an application for a variance. A neighbor who wants the land to stay in farming? The community group who started the farmers market? Look at the Planning Commission (or whoever approves the variance) and research them -- their issues, their voting preferences, who appointed them to the Commission. Given their interests, why should this land stay in farming? Try to identify a majority of votes you think you could get. For the iffy ones, ideally, you would meet with them, accompanied by someone whose opinion matters to them. Assure yourself that a majority will vote your way before paying the application fees.

You can do all this without buying the land; I am under the impression that developers do this all the time. You pay the owner for an Option (to buy it by such-and-such date at such-and-such price), then see if you can make the policies work for you before the option expires. Good luck!
posted by slidell at 10:49 PM on February 27, 2011

Land use is politics. No two ways about it. Been that way since people first started using land.

Specifically, zoning laws aren't like regulatory environments where at least lip service is paid to getting the "right" answer. They're ordinances passed by elected officials who, for all intents and purposes, can give you a variance or not for almost any reason or even no reason at all. Unless you can demonstrate something like discrimination against a protected class or outright corruption--kickbacks, that sort of thing--trying to get a zoning board to do something it doesn't want to do is not a terribly rewarding way of spending your time. It's not even just the potential use you're talking about: getting a city to voluntarily let go of ten acres is asking them to reduce their tax base, something which they have absolutely zero incentive to do.

That being said, Mister Fabulous is on to something when he asks about what kind of farming you're talking about. In terms of growing crops, if you mean a vegetable garden, even a really big one, you may not have an issue. Most residential zoning permits that sort of thing. It's when you start trying to sell the stuff by any means more organized than a roadside stand that you get in trouble, and sometimes even that can be a problem. Raising livestock, on the other hand, is usually entirely excluded--and for good reason. Farm animals stink if you aren't used to them. In rural areas, people either don't mind or live far enough apart that this isn't really a problem, but inside city limits you're basically asking to engage in a noxious use within spitting distance of people's windows. Just not gonna happen.

IANYL, but a cursory examination of the MRTFA suggests that this isn't a good route to go. You need to abide by Michigan's Generally Accepted Agricultural Management Practices. In general, the law was designed not to make it easy to start a new farm but to protect existing farmers from nuisance lawsuits by new residential neighbors. Expanding existing facilities is a lot easier than starting new ones.

My completely unofficial and non-legal advice? Look for property outside city limits.
posted by valkyryn at 5:00 AM on February 28, 2011

Response by poster: Ah, an Option! That was exactly the kind of terminology I was looking for. Thank you. That is the precise thing I will discuss with the land use attorney.

Yes, a small number of livestock is integral to our farming plan. It is my understanding of MRFTA that farms are only required to follow the GAAMPS if they have more than 50 animal units (1 animal unit = 2000#, so you could have 5000 chickens and still be exempt). The MRFTA lawyer that I talked to said that the GAAMP requirement was meant to apply to CAFOs. Nonetheless, our farming plan is one that would meet or exceed or every GAAMP. They are really the bare minimum. The ag lawyer advised us to follow the GAAMPS even if we aren't legally bound to do so, and said that new farming operations have successfully invoked MRFTA protections (case law is Papadelis v. Troy 2009).

(Also, livestock should NOT stink. As Joel Salatin says, "You aren't smelling manure, what you're smelling is mismanagement.")

These responses make me think that it would almost certainly be easier to rely on our MRFTA protections than deal with the zoning board.

We haven't spent a dime yet, so I am certainly open to finding land outside city limits/with the right zoning. Like I said though, the combination of the bargain that this land is, and the ease and affordability of the commute are making us think hard on this one.

Thanks, everyone.
posted by Leta at 5:25 AM on February 28, 2011

Dealing with the zoning board may not be too bad. I'd at least count your votes before assuming you don't have any. In a few hours of internet research, assuming public posting laws there are like California's, you'll probably have an idea whether or not you have a chance. Good luck.
posted by slidell at 11:06 PM on March 1, 2011

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