This resource has been fully reviewed and updated as of August 26, 2021
Whether you’re in the planning phases for creating the animal sanctuary of your dreams or have a number of residents already and are looking to expand, it’s critical for you to understand the zoning laws governing your property’s land. Zoning laws can be vastly different, not only in different parts of the United States, but even between two adjacent communities. By conducting research and asking the appropriate questions, you can be empowered to know what you can and cannot legally do on your property, and can make informed decisions to avoid expensive legal challenges and citations down the road. There are a diverse series of issues pertinent to sanctuaries that zoning regulations may cover in your area.
Depending on the community in which your potential sanctuary property is located, you may find out what zoning restrictions are in effect by reaching out to the local town hall, city hall, or county seat. Typically, someone involved with local or regional government can help you learn what zoning restrictions might be in place, or help connect you to the department that holds that information, via a simple phone call.
It is critical that you actively seek out this information personally from appropriate authorities versus relying on word of mouth, statements from realtors, or from internet research. Frequently, rescues and sanctuaries are contacted by animal caretakers who are suddenly confronted by neighbors who may take issue with new animal residents, and/or zoning enforcement authorities. Caretakers who are not in compliance with zoning regulation may then be required to find alternate homes for residents. Such issues can easily be prevented by personally consulting with relevant authorities well in advance of welcoming residents. Asking for confirmation of the allowances for a particular property in writing is also recommended.
It is also critical that if you require some form of zoning relief, such as a special use permit, conditional use permit or a variance for any aspect of your operation, such as keeping a particular species or perhaps holding public events and/or hosting volunteers and visitors, that you consult with a skilled land use attorney in your area well in advance of engaging in any of those activities. In some cases, you may even require zoning relief of this nature just to operate a nonprofit on your site. It is far better to get your permissions and limitations clear in advance, than it is to try and straighten them out after you have been found in violation of your zoning regulations.
Types Of Zoning
Generally, most municipalities divide zoning into broad usage categories that each have rules and restrictions to follow. Within these zoning categories, municipalities might have different subcategories; for instance, they may require an area to have similarly sized residential structures or restrict certain types of agricultural endeavors in certain areas within the community. The most common types of zoning include:
What Can Be Regulated By Zoning?
Although zoning regulations vary by municipality, there are some categories of regulation that are important to take note of when it comes to running a sanctuary in that area:
Type Of And Number Of Animals On Property
Possibly the most critical zoning regulation to research in your area is which animals are allowed on your land and the amount allowed on property. Some zoning regulations have species-specific requirements and restrictions, others are so specific as to ban male chickens but allow female chickens. Others still might limit the number of animals allowed on a property by their combined weight! Typically, companion animals such as dogs, cats, and certain birds are allowed in most zoned areas around the country. Agricultural and rural zones typically are going to have fewer restrictions regarding animals, but may still require permitting to keep them on property. The trade off of being in a rural area and having a larger number of residents is less proximity to large population centers, which is something to consider when choosing a location for a new sanctuary.
In addition, it may be unpleasant to think about, but some zoning prohibits the burial or internment of residents on property after they pass away. It’s important to know about these restrictions early on to prevent any unfortunate situations in the future.
Type, Number, And Size Of Structures On Property
Zoning regulations can dictate many different aspects of the structures on your property. Some zoned areas, for instance, have a limit of the amount of structures on one parcel of land, or may limit how big a barn can be built. Zoning might also contain requirements about parking on site that must be considered. Some zoned areas allow for agricultural structures to be exempt from permitting requirements, whereas others might restrict you from building an agricultural structure at all. Other regulations still may grandfather in existing structures but not allow you to expand beyond what is already built. Finally, others may create “setback” spaces for structures from either neighboring lot lines or existing buildings. These potential restrictions must be considered before you look to build or expand your organization. Even if you are allowed to keep many animals on property, building restrictions may prevent you from comfortably housing as many residents as you were hoping, since animal agricultural endeavors typically fit far more animals with less personal space than is ideal for their health.
If there is a restriction on the amount of structures on your property, you may have to make some tough choices balancing the needs of your residents versus facilities for education and outreach or guest accommodations.
Amount Of Residents And Visitors On Property
Certain zoned areas that may be more suitable to animal sanctuaries might have restrictions regarding how many humans can live on the property. This can have a major impact on how you run your sanctuary or how much you can expand it, since many sanctuaries utilize a scalable number of full-time caregivers who live on property in case of emergency. There may also be restrictions in place for the amount of people who can be on the property at the same time, or even restrictions on whether you can have buses park on your property at all, which could have consequences for any public events you may be planning for. While zoning relief such as special or conditional use permits, or variances may be available, you will need to be aware of restrictions in advance, and seek out such zoning relief with the counsel of a skilled professional well in advance of engaging in activities that could trigger any kind of potential adverse zoning enforcement.
Can Zoning Change After I Buy Land?
Zoning can indeed change after you’ve settled on and purchased land for your sanctuary. Typically, this should not be an issue as most municipalities have rules for grandfathering in old uses and regulations for existing property owners, but some may require you to petition the government in order to remain in compliance.
Depending on where you operate your sanctuary, there may be additional zoning regulations and peculiarities to contend with. Make sure to conduct thorough research wherever your organization may reside in order to have a full picture of what is and is not allowed on your sanctuary grounds!