This blog is one of a series on saving family farms in Maryland. In my last post, I covered some of the typical infrastructure needs of beginning farmers. In this post, I discuss possible regulatory challenges for new agricultural entrepreneurs.
As I mentioned in a previous post, when Maryland’s health and zoning regulations were first adopted, direct sales of farm products, value-added farm products and agri-tourism uses (such as farm weddings, corn mazes, and wine tastings) were not a significant part of the agricultural landscape and regulations were not written to allow them. The local food movement has created many new opportunities for farmers, but some counties have not updated their regulations to specifically allow the new uses.
Before you sign on the dotted line for leasing or purchasing a farm, I recommend that you visit our Zoning Tutorial, which describes the reasons for regulations, how they relate to adopted plans, and who to contact with questions and for clarifications. There are also links to county zoning regulations that are posted on the web.
To dispel any hope of simplicity, no county zoning regulations are the same. Each is patterned to address plan goals, citizen concerns, etc. The names of zoning districts differ, the definitions differ, and the review processes differ. In addition to verifying that their farm uses are allowed by zoning, farmers should ask their attorney if there are any preservation or conservation easements that would restrict their farming activities.
Even if they pass these hurdles, farmers can face tough, expensive legal challenges if they propose a farm project that is perceived by neighbors to have an adverse impact on the use of their properties. A case in point is the Bellevale Farms Inc., an organic dairy farm on 199 acres in the Long Green Valley area of Baltimore County. The Long Green Valley Association had sued when the dairy sought and received approval to construct a creamery.
Maryland farmers can benefit from two Maryland Department of Agriculture programs if nuisance claims arise. First, most Maryland counties have adopted a Right-to-Farm law. Second, the state has a Maryland Agricultural Conflict Resolution Service to help resolve disputes with neighbors.
When a farmer is ready to undertake a new project, it pays to visit the local permit offices. I put together a simple table of the types of permits that may be needed and the agencies that may be involved.
Fortunately, there are people to help. At the Beginning Farmer Success website, they have collected contact information by county. You may also want to see if there is an Agricultural Marketing Professional in your county to help guide you through the permitting process.
Some counties have made great progress in clarifying zoning regulations that apply to
farm enterprises. Earlier this year, I wrote about Montgomery County’s new zoning ordinance which allows agricultural uses in practically every part of the county, scaled to the development in each particular zone. I think that Calvert County does a good job of allowing a wide variety of agricultural uses in its agriculture districts (full disclosure, I helped to write it). Farm entrepreneurs can find farm use definitions, the zones where the use is allowed and the conditions that will be imposed.
More can be done if we are to save family farms in Maryland. I just read an article from The Atlantic CITYLAB about how a Denver suburb actively encourages urban farming and has streamlined its regulations. As the article states, they are experiencing an “agricultural renaissance.”
Lets hope that we are on the cusp of the same! Next week, gaining level access to markets.