Zoning and City Code Considerations for Urban Homesteaders

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Before considering food-producing animals on your urban homestead, start with neighborhood outreach and be sure to check your city codes.
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“The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Urban Homesteading,” by Sundari Elizabeth Kraft, will give beginning urban homesteaders an idea of where to start.

The urban homesteading movement is growing and flourishing in cities large and small all over the country. Even if you are an apartment dweller with little or no outdoor space, this helpful guide gives you everything you need to know to get a taste of the “country life” in the city. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Urban Homesteading (Alpha Books, 2011), by Sundari Elizabeth Kraft, will help make your homesteading dreams a reality. In this excerpt, from chapter 2, “City Considerations,” you will find important and helpful information about working with zoning and city codes.

Navigating Your City’s Zoning Code

Zoning codes are pretty much always written by lawyers. So unless you’ve passed the bar exam, don’t feel bad if you find the code difficult to understand. Here are a few tips you can keep in mind as you dive in and attempt to figure out what you are and are not allowed to do:

Know your designation: Start by learning what the zoning designation is for your area. Even if it’s “residential,” there are usually distinctions in the code between residential types (R-1, R-2, etc.). Many cities have a function somewhere on their website that allows you to input your address and receive a bunch of information on your property, including your zoning designation. Or you can call the zoning office and ask.

Search for keywords: Most cities have their zoning code online. However, sometimes it can be difficult to tell which section of the code relates to your questions. Try to find a link that opens the whole code; it will be a large document. Then use the “find” or “search” function in your web browser or PDF reader to locate all the instances of the word you’re looking for, like chicken,goat, or garden.

Call and ask … and then ask again: Reading page after page of zoning language can be enough to leave you cross-eyed. Sometimes the quickest way to get answers is to call your city’s zoning department and talk with someone. Be sure to make note of the name of the person who’s answering your questions in case you need to reference it in the future.

But here’s the catch: you should probably call back later and direct the same questions to a second person. The people who work for the zoning department certainly do their best, but zoning codes are complex and change frequently. Sometimes the first answer you get isn’t the right one, so it’s best to double-check.

Connect with local sustainability groups: The simplest way to understand not only what your zoning code says, but how it works in practice, is to talk with other people in your area who are urban homesteaders. They’re likely to know what’s in the code, what must be done to comply with it, how it’s enforced, and what (if anything) is being done to change it.

Applying for a Permit or Variance

Applying for a permit or variance can be frustrating, but it’s infinitely better than living in a city that completely bans whatever it is you want to do. So while the process is bureaucratic (and sometimes expensive), at least the homesteading activity you have in mind is possible. Plus, you can always work to change your city’s zoning code and remove those pesky permitting requirements (see Changing Your Zoning Code, later in this article).

Part of what makes getting a permit or variance so frustrating is that the process isn’t always clear. That’s when reaching out to local sustainable living advocates is especially helpful because they can point you in the right direction. Keep a notebook, and document every step you take along the way of getting your permit, including the names of all the city employees you interact with. Take care when you fill out your paperwork and make it clear you’re meeting the requirements they’ve laid out. When it comes to a permit, hanging in there through the process is most of the battle.

Requesting a variance is a slightly different story. Permits are typically applied for and granted privately, but a zoning variance usually requires public notice. This means the city gives you a sign for you to post on your home. The sign lets people know what you’re applying for and tells them where they can register a comment. Generally, if too many of your neighbors — or in some cases, just one — are opposed to the variance, it won’t be granted. Therefore, the process of applying for a variance needs to include a little bit of neighborhood outreach.

Your neighbors will be much more likely to support, or at least not oppose, your project if they feel they’ve been consulted first. Take a few minutes to touch base with your neighbors before you post your sign. It will give you a chance to give them the facts about what you’re doing and address any concerns they may have. Plus, it will tip you off if one of your neighbors seems to be set against you going ahead with your project. If that person is going to register an objection against your variance, you’ll want to get statements of support from your other neighbors.

Changing Your Zoning Code

If you want to take steps to make your city friendlier to sustainable living ideas like urban homesteading, that sometimes means pushing for changes in the zoning code. Some cities are operating with a code that is 50-plus years old and reflects outdated, compartmentalized thinking about the way a city should function. Part of the reason why portions of it may be so out of date is because it’s not easy to change a zoning code. It’s a long process that requires a lot of patience, but if you’re successful, you will be creating sustainable living opportunities for your whole community.

The first step in the process is to understand who in the city government truly has the power to change the zoning code. You might be surprised to learn that it’s not your mayor or the zoning department — it’s your city council. They are the ones who will ultimately decide whether or not your proposed ordinance passes and becomes part of the code. And of course, they are elected officials … who generally wish to be reelected. That’s why public support — and public pressure — is such a critical part of this process.

Several potential steps are involved in accomplishing a code change. Not every situation requires all these steps, but at times you’ll need all the help you can get to make a change.

Make a statement: Create a clear vision of the changes you would like to see and start putting it out into the world. If you have the ability to make a simple web page, it can be a useful reference for anyone who’s interested in learning more about your cause. Write a catchy e-mail that explains what you’re trying to do and send it to everyone you know in your area. Ask them to help you spread the word.

Build support: You need to create a mechanism for attracting, capturing, informing, and mobilizing supporters. A Facebook page can be a great way to do this. You can also use a listserv, online message board, or e-mail mailing list.

Develop answers: Once you start talking about your ideas publicly, you’ll get a sense for the kind of pushback you’ll encounter. The good news is that those who oppose urban homesteading ordinances are usually not original — you’re going to hear the same arguments over and over again. Put some thought into clear, memorable, and (reasonably) short answers. Then spread the answers around so any supporter who talks about the issue has a good way to respond if he or she is challenged. (If you’d like some help developing answers to common questions about food producing-animals, read The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Urban Homesteading Myths vs. Facts on the Heirloom Gardens LLC website.)

Find a champion: Try to identify someone on your city council who would be supportive of the changes you’re seeking. Request a meeting and see if he or she would be willing to sponsor an ordinance.

Educate your community: Begin talking with community groups about your ideas and the proposed ordinance. Sustainable living organizations are great ones to focus on first because they’ll be easy to talk to and will ultimately form the base of your supporters. Eventually, you want to focus your energy on your city’s registered neighborhood organizations (RNOs). They have a strong position of influence in local elections, which means their opinion matters a great deal to your city council.

Small steps: All the meetings involved in a project like this can be a lot of work. Try offering training for your ordinance’s supporters. Teach them how to talk about the issue before sending them to meet with their respective RNOs to advocate the cause.

Lobby your council members: Request meetings with all of your city council members to discuss your ideas for a new ordinance. If they seem to need extra convincing (usually expressed by the phrase “I need to see what my constituents think”), you can mobilize your supporters to call and send e-mails.

Create a task force: The actual writing of a proposed ordinance probably won’t be done by just one person. The council member who has signed on to sponsor the ordinance can help bring together a group with the goals of researching the issue and drafting an ordinance for your city. The task force may include council members, community leaders, and people from your city’s zoning department. Other agencies may also be included if it’s appropriate, such as involving folks from Animal Control when writing a food-producing animals ordinance.

Gather endorsements: Once the task force has created a proposed ordinance, find community organizations willing to formally stand behind it. Groups focused on environmental issues, poverty, food justice/access, and healthy food/living are all good possibilities. Also consider asking neighborhood mothers’ groups to voice their support, as well as any RNOs willing to formally stand behind the ordinance.

Continue lobbying: Throughout this process, you should be periodically mobilizing the supporters to contact their council members with their thoughts about the ordinance. They really need to know the community wants to see a change in the zoning code.

Pack the hearing room: The last step in the process is for the proposed ordinance to formally come before your city council. By the time it gets to this point, it’s likely that most of the council members will have already made up their minds. However, there will still be an opportunity for community members to speak at the meeting. Do everything you can to fill that room with supporters and arrange for as many of them to speak as you can.

Clearly, it’s not a simple process. Making systemic change is never easy, but it will help to improve the way people live in your city.

The Least You Need to Know

• Although urban homesteading has its advantages, some city regulations may restrict your activities.
• Talking to sustainable living advocates in your area is often the best way to learn about your city’s zoning rules.
• You may have to put in the time to get a permit or variance for a homesteading activity, but it’s typically worth the effort.
• If you don’t like your community’s rules, change them!

Reprinted with permission from The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Urban Homesteading by Sundari Elizabeth Kraft and published by Alpha Books, 2011.