Horse-Friendly Zoning

Population growth in rural areas affects the horse industry on a national level and threatens to become worse through the millennium. As people move closer to properties with horses, zoning conflicts sometimes result.
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Population growth in rural areas affects the horse industry on a national level and threatens to become worse through the millennium. As people move closer to properties with horses, zoning conflicts sometimes result.

The zoning problem is serious. It affects the horse industry on a national level and threatens to become worse through the millennium: People are, in large numbers, escaping city life to seek a more rural-like environment to call their home. Unfortunately, the new neighbors do not understand or appreciate the horses residing in the area. As these people move closer to properties with horses, conflict sometimes results. Many of the conflicts involve zoning and arise at the local government level.

Photo courtesy of the Equine Land Conservation Resource

Zoning conflicts take many forms. Sometimes the municipality is considering zoning classifications or restrictions that lower the allowable number of horses per acre. Sometimes the community wants to re-zone spacious bridle paths into commercial uses, such as subdivisions and shopping centers. Too often, it seems, new ordinances are enacted at lightening speed with virtually no notice to or input from those who enjoy horses.

Regardless of who wins a zoning conflict, the battle always takes its toll emotionally and, often, financially. Proponents of horse-favorable zoning often react as though their own children were threatened to be taken away. Success now brings no long-term guarantees. A re-match can always follow a few years down the road.

Understanding Zoning and Its Purposes
What is "Zoning"?

Cities, villages, and townships have the power to enact regulations that are effective within their territorial bounds, which are known as "ordinances." Ordinances that regulate the use of land and buildings involve "zoning." By constitutional authority, the goal of zoning and land use ordinances is generally to protect the public' s health, safety, and welfare. Zoning ordinances typically follow, and must be consistent with, the community' s comprehensive land use plan or "master plan."

Around the early 1900s, as our society became mechanized, communities began enacting zoning ordinances, mainly to control congested areas. Over time, however, the objectives for zoning have become far more diverse to include, for example: stabilizing property values, regulating population density, avoiding conflicting land uses between neighboring properties, reducing fire hazards, and planning the community' s land use needs well into the years ahead. A typical zoning ordinance categorizes the municipality into zones (some examples are A-1 for agricultural uses, A-2 for agricultural and rural residential uses, and several others) and then describes what land uses are permitted or prohibited within the classifications. Zoning ordinances can also regulate other provisions and aspects of land use.

Who Plans and Adopts Zoning Ordinances

Local legislative bodies who adopt zoning ordinances do not necessarily draft them. Rather, in many communities the local government delegates much of this work to a subcommittee known as a zoning or planning board or commission. That body, before it formally recommends new or changed zoning ordinances to the local legislative body, must first evaluate the need for the ordinance and invite public involvement through notice procedures established by law. After that, the zoning or planning board or commission prepares a draft ordinance for public comment.

Following the conclusion of hearings, the group votes on whether to recommend that the municipal government adopt the ordinance. With an affirmative vote, the proposed ordinance advances to the municipality' s governing body. Before that body votes on adoption of the ordinance, however, one or more public hearings will follow.

Classic Features of a Zoning Ordinance

Features sometimes found in horse-related zoning ordinances can include:
* Minimum lot sizes for a family dwelling
* The maximum number of horses per acre
* The maximum number of buildings per lot
* Setback restrictions for fencing and barns (typically specifying the minimum distance that one can place a building, fence, or arena from a property line or street)
* Height restrictions affecting structures and fences on the lot
* Restrictions on the percentage of a lot that can be covered by buildings or structures
* "Horse permits" (requiring horse owners to complete, sometimes annually, an
application. The application may require a filing fee, and in some cases adjacent land-owners may even have the opportunity to challenge issuance of the permit)
* Equestrian district/agricultural zoning with large lot sizes set as minimums
* Whether and where horses can be stabled or used for business purposes such as boarding, training, lessons, or others
* Permitted fencing materials, types, and heights

Issues on Which Zoning Battles Can Arise

Here are some of the grounds from which zoning battles can arise:
Proposed Zoning or Land Use Changes Initiated by Property Owners or the Municipality The municipality or property owners can propose changes to the way in which land in the community can be used. Sometimes the proposals aim to make it harder to keep horses (although horse supporters can always seek changes through their local governments to make zoning favorable to horses). Other times, horses become an unintended casualty of other proposals, such as when a developer petitions to re-zone certain property, formerly used as riding trails, to allow construction of new subdivisions, shopping centers, or facilities.

Variances

What if you propose to expand your barn, but your plans would run afoul of a set-back restriction requiring at least a 50 foot distance from the barn to the edge of your property? Even though your proposal would violate the law, you still can petition your local government for a variance. Municipalities differ on how a variance can be sought, but variances are typically issued through entities known as the Zoning Board of Appeals or board of adjustment. This body functions to review special matters and hardship cases, and it has the power to officially recommend that the property owner can deviate from the black-letter language of the ordinance. Variances are more likely issued if the deviation is minor and the existing ordinance would work a hardship or other difficulty on the property owner.

The entity that issues your variance petition, aside from evaluating the merits of your proposal, will take into account your neighbors' concerns, as well. Before the hearing on a variance, the municipality will give notice to owners of property located within a certain distance from your lot. The notice will advise the nearby land owners that you have petitioned for a variance, the nature of the variance, and the date and time of a hearing on the variance petition. With that information, those land owners will have the opportunity to attend the hearing and voice their comments -- positive or negative -- about the proposed variance and whether it should be granted. After the variance petition has progressed through that stage, hearings may follow before the planning commission and later before the governing body.

Avoiding a Zoning Battle Before Buying Property

If you plan to buy property with the goal of stabling horses on it, get clear, reliable, and preferably written answers to the following questions before you sign any contracts or part with your money:

1. What is the property' s zoning classification? A visual inspection of the property' s current use tells little about its permitted future use. Conflict may be waiting to happen if, for example, you buy property which has housed the seller' s own horses, but you later transform it into an operation for horse breeding, boarding, or training, or a riding academy. If the property was zoned for residential or agricultural purposes, the municipality -- correctly or not -- might classify your use as "commercial" and assert that it runs afoul of the zoning laws.
2. Do local ordinances affect your plans to install new fencing? The local ordinances might require only wood fencing, which might, down the line, affect your plans to install metal or PVC plastic fencing. If this is the case, you are virtually assured a trip to your community' s zoning board of appeals. Expect to see that body, too, if your planned fencing runs afoul of height and set-back restrictions.
3. Will the property' s size and configuration allow you to add new structures, such as another residence, manager' s residence, new barns, or an indoor arena while remaining in compliance with zoning ordinances and restrictions? If not, get very reliable assurances (possibly from a knowledgeable lawyer) that you will ultimately secure the proper approvals from the municipality, or that you will likely prevail in litigation against the municipality, in order to bring your building plans to reality. Under this scenario, of course, you will need to be patient and should expect to pay for legal and professional fees, before you can begin enjoying your intended use on the land.
4. Does the municipality have manure disposal restrictions? Your operating costs will change substantially if you are prevented from spreading manure.

Addressing the Municipality

What if your community is now considering a proposed new ordinance or a proposed changed ordinance that will somehow affect the ability to keep and enjoy horses? Before you embark on such a challenge keep in mind the following strategies for improving your chances of success:

Preparing For the Onslaught of Municipality Hearings and Meetings: Remember Your Audience.

Who runs the hearings and meetings of the planning commission or local governing body? Typically, municipal leaders who have merely seen horses race at the track or patrol the downtown streets. The overwhelming majority of these people have never owned horses. Consequently, remember that winning their support for your view will not involve winning them over as horse lovers.

Learn the Terminology and Understand the Legislative Process in Your Community.

Familiarize yourself with terms such as "public hearing," "setback restrictions,""Planning Commission," and "grandfather clause." Expect to hear and use these, and many more, terms. Keep Abreast of the Meeting Agendas. Know where the local government publishes or posts meeting notices for its planning commission and governing body. Keep aware of whether the agenda includes matters of interest to you. Remember that the municipality must give advance notice of its agenda and cannot "sneak in" an important measure, such as a re-vamped horse ordinance, without following proper channels for advance notice and hearings. Consider Establishing an Association. A well-organized group of horse proponents (whether incorporated or not) can strengthen the odds for success. The association can pool its resources, raise funds, and, for example: assign members to actively track all important community government meeting dates, retain legal counsel or a consultant, develop a phone network to contact concerned residents about key meetings, evaluate proposals together and develop reasonable alternatives, plan an orderly presentation at public hearings, and share important information.

Understand the Municipality' s Established Procedures.

Understand the way the municipality works, or designate someone in your group to take charge of this. For example, how far in advance of a public meeting must the municipal body post or publish its meeting notices? At what meetings is public comment required? Where horse-related zoning is involved, make sure that the municipality has not overstepped its bounds and has followed its established rules and procedures for meetings and hearings.

Educate in a Positive Way Through an Open House or Barn Tour.

If you are allowed to do so, consider inviting local planning commissioners and community leaders to a friendly, wellorganized "open house" or community horse barn tour. In planning the event, of course, you will hand-pick presentable facilities, invite all members of the planning commission, local government, and others and tour the guests through the facilities. This type of event may virtually become an eye-opener to some and might help them abandon long-held prejudices that horses somehow generate foul sights, sounds, and odors or that horses threaten property values.

Gain the Community' s Support Through Community Activities.

Another example of ways in which horse supporters can develop good community relations is to hold fund-raising activities with a horse theme. For example, a leader in the community where this author lives organizes the Franklin, Michigan "Fox Hunt." In this event, several riders from Southeast Michigan gather on horseback for a fun, quiet ride through the streets of Franklin, Michigan (a quaint suburb of Detroit) with a few jumping opportunities in pastures of cooperative residents. An invitation-only reception follows that evening, which is well-attended by municipal leaders. All participants must make a cash donation to the community association. The event is successful. In 1997, it raised thousands of dollars, which were earmarked for the community to plant new trees, and strengthened ties between the horse-supporters and the community.

Now the Hearings and Proposals Begin:

Let' s assume that the municipality has now drafted a proposed new ordinance or a change to the old one. The process, which some might call the "battle," has just begun. Now, more than ever, your need for organization is paramount. Here are some ideas:

Read All Ordinance Proposals Very Carefully.

If the municipality presents a proposal to change an existing ordinance or to enact a new one, read it very carefully. Understand exactly how the proposed new ordinance varies from the old, and consider drafting a chart that thoroughly compares features of the two.

Plan a Careful and Reasonable Strategy.

Threatening the local government or its members is a sure promise of failure. Be reasonable when addressing the local planning commission or governing body. Be respectful, not disruptive, at meetings. Show the municipal leaders that you share their concerns.

Some business people, such as real estate developers, who have had success with local governments have been known to remain in attendance at municipal meetings long after the hearing on their issue has ended. Just a few hours of quiet attendance -- in which they do nothing more than sit quietly near the front row while the meeting continues -- can have tremendous impact on the decision makers and help earn their respect.

Consider Appointing a "Leader."

A likeable member of the community, particularly someone who has earned respect in the community or has a distinguished history of serving in local government positions, will help lend credibility to your group as it addresses the local government.

Listen.

Where allowed by law (keep in mind that Open Meetings Act laws or similar laws requiring almost all local government meetings to take place in public), meet with members of the municipal body before or between hearings on your issue, even if these people do not share your support of horses. Ask a member of the municipal body what generated the undesirable zoning or land use proposal. Discuss their concerns. Talking to those whom you once dismissed as being your enemies might be far more productive than you think.

Borrow Language from Other Ordinances.

Municipal governments frequently borrow language from other community ordinances. If you can locate favorable ordinances from nearby areas -- especially those that have been in effect, without challenge, for many years -- consider presenting them to your own municipality. You might be able to borrow some language to use as an alternative to the unfavorable proposal at issue.

Actively Involve Your Allies.

Because municipal leaders typically fear making unpopular decisions, there is strength in numbers. When important hearings or meetings take place, bring as many people as possible. Written petitions loaded with signatures are nice, but a room full of concerned, cooperative constituents can say far more.

Accentuate the Positive.

Help the municipality' s leaders understand the true importance of horses to the community. Show the extent to which horses have impacted the community. For example, discuss how the community' s children are involved with horses and the degree of responsibility that horses foster. Explain how horses are central to community and school activities, such as Pony Clubs or 4-H programs, equestrian teams, handicapped riding programs, local horse shows, or other organized activities. Consider proving how horse shows and equine events have brought revenue into the community.

Never Underestimate the Importance of Professional Help.

Zoning battles are very serious battles that involve legal issues. A knowledgeable lawyer can be your best coach. The lawyer, whether he or she works behind the scenes or as a visible member of the group, can help orchestrate the challenge to improve your chances of success. A lawyer can, for example address the municipality (where appropriate), retain consultants, help select effective residents to address the municipality, review or write statements for residents to present at public hearings, develop effective relations with the media, and more.

When all else fails, sometimes zoning and land use conflicts must be resolved through the court system. A lawyer can evaluate whether an ordinance at issue, the manner in which it is applied, or the manner in which it was enacted a proper targets of a legal challenge.

Five Practical Tips for Protecting Horse-Friendly Zoning

The author, attorney Julie Fershtman, had her own conflict involving equine zoning in 1991 when her community government considered changing its horse ordinance to make it harder to stable horses. In an excerpt from Fershtman' s book, Equine Law & Horse Sense, she offers tips for protecting and defending the right to keep horses in the community:

# Get Active in Your Community.
Actively participate in community groups that sponsor worthwhile events. Every community has several. The goal is to meet others and show them that you're a reasonable, likeable person who shares their concerns for keeping the community beautiful and maximizing property values.

Remember that community organizations often serve as ?feeder? groups for community government. Those who work with you could, sooner or later, end up on your City Council, Planning Commission, or Zoning Board of Appeals. They'll remember you. You might become one of them. To my surprise, my local government appointed me to serve on its planning commission. As a Commissioner, I helped the local government evaluate new land use ordinances. Some of the proposed ordinances directly affected horse owners such as the large animal ordinance and ordinances relating to fence types and locations.

# Keep Your Horse Facility as Neat and Clean as Possible.
Who would argue that a neat, properly-maintained horse facility threatens property values or the safety and health of the community? Opponents of ?horse-favorable? zoning eagerly seek visible examples of why horses detract from property values. Don?t even give them a chance. Start with your own facility. The opportunities are endless: remove horse droppings from the road, paint the barn, clean out all rubbish, relocate manure piles away from view, plant grass seed, add flowers, touch up the fencing.

# Keep Your Non-Horse Neighbors Happy.
Who typically leads the battle against horses in suburban communities? Disgruntled neighbors who have never owned a horse. The day may never come when they share your love of horses, but you cannot afford to ignore them. Make all of your neighbors comfortable with your horse facility. Consider sharing with them your plans to install fencing or structures near property borders, even if you have no legal obligation to do so. Be reasonable with them. Try to understand their concerns.

In my experience, after negotiation with a neighbor I relocated part of my new pasture fencing. The loss of pasture space was a very worthwhile long-term investment. My neighbors are happy, they have enjoyed my horses, and they respect -- and have never forgotten -- the fact that I accommodated them.

# Be Responsible.
If you live in a community like mine where horse facilities are not common, remember that you're in the public eye every minute. Respect others? property and privacy. For example, don't trample or cut across someone else?s property without permission. Set an example for other horse owners in your area.

# Get Organized.
Without a doubt, in any battle involving horses and zoning there is strength in numbers. Horse owners know that the struggle to keep horses in the community could repeat itself in the future. Therefore, the slightest hint of trouble should find you actively seeking out your allies, whether they are horse owners or horse admirers. Why wait? Drive (or ride) around the community to find properties that stable horses. Introduce yourself. Exchange phone numbers. Share information about local government candidates known to have ?anti-horse? or ?pro-horse? leanings.

Julie Fershtman is one of the nation's most experienced equine law practitioners, has successfully tried equine cases before juries in four states, has drafted hundreds of equine industry contracts, and is a Fellow of the American College of Equine Attorneys. She is also author of three books involving equine law. For more information, visit www.equinelaw.net or www.equinelaw.info.