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    Understanding Your Animal Sanctuary’s Zoning Rights & Restrictions

    A street with yellow writing that says "zone".

    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.

    Reminder: We Aren’t Your Lawyer!
    The Open Sanctuary Project is not a law firm and this resource is not a substitute for the services of an attorney. Accordingly, you should not construe any of the information presented as legal advice that is suitable to meet your particular situation or needs. Please review our disclaimer if you haven’t yet, and please consider engaging an attorney experienced with zoning law in your jurisdiction to help you navigate any zoning questions that you may have.

    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.

    Consider A Survey!
    Property surveys can give you a precise understanding of your property’s boundaries, but they can also do so much more! Surveys are a visual indicator of restrictions on land such as rights-of-way, setbacks, buffer zones, and easements, environmental concerns, or things like encroachments on land by structures on neighboring properties like fences or buildings. All of these are essential things to be aware of when you purchase a property, or plan construction, so that you know exactly what you’re buying and what you can and cannot do on the property! We have a resource on surveys and how they can help your animal sanctuary, which you can find here

    Why Zoning Laws Exist

    In broad terms, zoning laws were enacted so that municipalities could have the authority to segment and separate different kinds of land use. This regulation ostensibly protects landowners from having neighbors that conduct activities or business that would lower their quality of life or home value. Some zoning laws have come under legal scrutiny as people challenge how restrictions imposed by the government affect their personal rights.

    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:

    Residential Zoning
    These zones are reserved typically for areas that are intended for family homes and apartments. These areas might have specific restrictions about the number of structures that can be allowed on the property as well as the species and number of animals allowed to be on the property. Please note that in residential areas in particular, you may need special permissions such as a conditional use permit just to operate a nonprofit, let alone keep animal residents.
    Agricultural Zoning
    These zones are reserved typically for areas that are intended strictly for agriculture industry. Usually the zoning laws prevent too much residential occupancy in one area, but places few restrictions on the type and amount of animal allowed on property.
    Rural Zoning
    Similar to agricultural zoning, rural zoning is typically reserved for less populated areas, restricting dense residential structures and allowing for greater animal occupancy than most residential zones do.
    Industrial Zoning
    These zones are reserved typically for areas conducting heavy industry, especially those requiring large factories and noisy facilities.
    Commercial Zoning
    These zones are reserved typically for areas that are intended for businesses, such as office buildings, malls, hotels, and warehouses. Zoning laws might prevent certain types of businesses to be in close proximity to others, and might have parking space availability requirements as well.
    Historic Zoning
    Reserved typically for areas that have historically significant buildings and neighborhoods, this zoning prevents certain types of development in order to preserve the character or significance of the area.
    Combination Zoning
    Many areas allow different mixes of zoning in one area, sometimes allowing different zoning on a case by case basis. Common mixes usually include residential zoning and another activity that does not cause undue burden on individuals living in the area, such as commercial or agricultural zoning. Again, it is important to check in any residential zoning area whether special permissions are required to operate a nonprofit organization on site.
    Spot Zoning
    Spot zoning refers to a small area being given its own zoning separate from the area surrounding it. This can include a park in a residential area, or a historic farm near a commercial area.
    Contract Zoning
    Contract zoning refers to the allowance of a landowner to rezone portions of their land with agreed upon restrictions. A government might, for instance, allow you to keep goats on your residential property with an appropriate petition.

    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!


    How To Start, Operate, And Develop A Farm Animal Sanctuary | Farm Sanctuary

    Land Use And Zoning Basics | Find Law

    Types Of Zoning | Find Law

    What Are The Major Types Of Zoning? | Legal Match

    What Is Zoning? | University Of Wisconsin

    What If Zoning Rules Change After You Buy Land? | NOLO

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