Multiple undeveloped rural parcels in agriculture area, ag economy is CAFO

by Cathy
(Jerome, Idaho)

There are multiple parcels in the county (various sizes, 1-10 acres) platted in early 1980's. Since then, mega dairies have been built in the same zone (A-1). We would like to protect the ag base but is the best plan to dis-allow no residences in this zone on parcels less than 40 acres? Currently, the ordinance allows 1 residence per parcel.

Editors' Reply:
Great question. For our many city slicker readers, we'll explain that CAFO is an acronym for Confined Animal Feeding Operation, or some people say Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation. The idea is that animals raised for food (or milk or eggs) don't roam around freely, but are kept confined in a barn to maximize production.

Now let's tackle the question, which we understand to be this: if you want to keep your agricultural economic base (currently CAFO, but probably subject to change based on agricultural economics), should you prohibit building homes on lots of less than a certain size?

The general and most obvious answer would be yes. If you want farms, you can't be having houses on one-acre residential lots sprinkled over the land randomly. You can actually promote agriculture by having properly thought out agricultural zoning. The regulations could require a minimum of 10 acres per residence or 40 acres per residence, as you prefer and as your terrain dictates. Anything less than a 10-acre minimum lot size won't promote agriculture in most geographies.

Do you like the CAFOs as your money-making form of agriculture? (They can be smelly, noisy, and polluting if they malfunction, so many rural communities fight them. But it sounds as though you are resigned to any problems they present, Cathy, because they make money. But does the money stay in your local economy? That's another good question, because often the profits go to corporate headquarters and local employment is minimal.)

If you want to keep the CAFOs and even add more of them, then zone appropriately. You can draw a zoning district where not even one residence is permitted, you know--just certain types of agriculture.

If you'd say you need your CAFOs, but don't want any more, go ahead and draw the zoning district map according to your ideal land uses. Make sure the nonconforming use provision of your zoning ordinance provides liberally for replacement or even slight expansion of the existing CAFOs should there be a fire or natural disaster of some sort.

Now the next question. What should you do about the many lots that have been platted and sold? If there are many different ownerships of one-acre lots, up to 10 acres, and most people only own one or two contiguous lots, you're going to have a very hard fight on your hands to say that houses cannot be built there. This depends on what people expected when they bought the lots, but if they thought they were going to build there someday, it won't be pretty if you want to limit that.

Nevertheless, if your town really can't deal with houses on one-acre lots, document your reasons well and then zone the land appropriately. Sometimes you can't provide a sewer system at any reasonable cost, and the land itself may require more than an acre for an appropriately sanitary septic system. You may not be able to provide municipal water, and there may not be enough of an aquifer to provide adequate well water on a one-acre lot. Those would be two good reasons to stop building on one-acre lots.

Another possible situation is that the one-acre lots, up to 10 acres, are concentrated in the hands of a few owners. This could happen if the original subdivider wasn't very successful at selling lots, or if speculators have been buying up the lots.

In that case, you may have more options. We would consult the property owners directly. Do a great community engagement process or even hold a charrette to discuss and work on the issue.

If you find a few of these owners of larger tracts that really want to profit by being residential developers, AND, if there is enough demand for smaller residential lot developments in your area, see if you can make a sensible-looking zoning map accommodating the people who want to develop residential properties.

If you do this, strongly consider the many advantages of cluster housing in a rural setting. This means that the houses in a rural development would be rather close together, bringing obvious economies in providing utilities and even public safety services. Then the farmland or open space would fan out beyond the houses to provide a net overall low density, or ratio of population to land area. You can require a cluster approach through zoning.

Then if some property owners don't really have the ability or interest to develop housing, or the demand doesn't exist yet, or these owners want their property agricultural, keep those properties zoned agricultural.

That's good advice unless the result is a real crazy quilt of spot zoning, of course. If you have the crazy quilt effect once everyone has been consulted, then you'll have to start using solid planning criteria in addition to owners' wishes.

See pages on rural zoning, rural economic development, and rural community development for more help.

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