Six Tips for Agricultural Zoning Applications

Let's say you want to expand your livestock operations, build a new manure storage structure, or start an agritourism business focused on beekeeping or growing hops. You likely know you have to complete some sort of state application for such an operation, but what about the local level? Like any good legal question, the answer is "it depends." Here in Indiana, because of our patchwork of zoning approaches, the answer changes from county to county. Here are my tips for navigating the local zoning scene: 

  1. Talk to the county office. Before you spend time and money reviewing local zoning ordinances and required procedures, stop in your local county office. Talk to a human. Depending on your county, it could be an Executive Director of the Area Plan Commission (APC), a County Commissioner, or a Secretary of the APC. Explain your plans and ask what steps you need to complete.
  2. Educate yourself. Some counties provide their zoning maps and ordinances online, but in other counties it can be a challenge to get current information. Find out how your land is currently zoned and what the permitted uses are in that district. There may also be a category of permitted uses with a special exception. Review relevant definitions in the zoning ordinance. Note: there are still a few counties in Indiana without traditional zoning rules or maps. 
  3. Decide on a plan. Depending on the size of your project, professional assistance might be useful from this point forward. Based on the zoning ordinance, what route should you take? Typical options include requesting a variance, special exception, or a rezone. If the piece of land historically has been allowed to exist out of compliance with the zoning ordinance, you may be a legal nonconforming use. Each of these options will require a difference approach. In counties with limited or no zoning, your plan may be much simpler.
  4. Prepare your documents. Even if your project is a permitted use in your zoning district, you will likely still need a building permit (also called an Improvement Location Permit or ILP). If your project is not a permitted use, you will likely need a variance or a special exception. You may need to ask your county to rezone your property. These applications can include detailed site plans, drawings, copies of state permits, and basic information about the project. There will be a public notice requirement, including publication in a newspaper and notification to neighbors. Once you submit all of your required documents to the appropriate county office, you will be placed on the calendar for the appropriate county office (APC, Board of Zoning Appeals, or County Commissioners).
  5. Attend the meetings. Again, depending on what you're building and where you're located, you will likely need to attend one or more APC, BZA, or Commissioner meetings. Review your local ordinance to see what information you should be prepared to present at the meeting. You, your attorney, and/or consultant should be ready to answer questions from the county board and the public. These meetings can last from 15 minutes to late into the night. The board may vote that day or could continue your project to the next meeting. 
  6. Post-meeting steps. Once you receive a decision from your county board, you will have additional steps to take. If approved, you'll have a certain time frame within which to begin construction. You may still require a building permit or a certificate of zoning compliance. If denied, you'll need to decide whether you'd like to appeal the decision. Under Indiana law, if you (or your neighbors) want to appeal a BZA decision, such an appeal must be taken within 30 days. Usually you also have 30 days to appeal an APC decision to the BZA. If your application is denied or your neighbors appeal the approval of your application, you should contact an attorney right away to help you through the appellate process. Do not sit on your rights - the clock is ticking!