University of Maryland Extension

Land use regulations and zoning

Author: 
Nicole Cook, B.S., J.D., LL.M., Environmental and Agricultural, Faculty Legal Specialist, Agriculture Law Education Initiative (ALEI), University of Maryland Eastern Shore

Urban Ag home | Table of contents

Zoning and land-use regulations are how states and local governments control how land within their jurisdictions may be used. Some land uses will be allowed without a permit and others will require a permit, usually called either a “special use” or “conditional use permit” depending on the community. Permit applications usually allow land uses and structures on a case-by-case basis and typically require site plan approval, public meetings, and permit fees. Before licensing, leasing, or purchasing land, make sure the property is zoned for the planned use of the land, and research whether you will need a permit.

Zoning involves government agencies (typically at the local level) drawing zoning maps of cities that indicate which areas of the city are to be used for residential purposes, commercial purposes, industry, mixed-use, etc. Once these zones are designated, certain activities and structures are allowed or disallowed in each of the zones, such as where certain types of urban agriculture may be practiced, permissible lot sizes, whether commercial production is permitted, the type and number of livestock that may be kept, and the types of structures that can be built. Some codes also set standards for irrigation runoff, pesticides, sanitation, livestock slaughter, setback requirements, and aesthetics, among other things (Public Health Law Center; Vaage and Taylor).

Among the types of allowed structures in a zoning district, some are allowed as principal structures and others as accessory structures. Accessory structures are usually structures that complement the primary structure. For example, in a single-family residential zone, a single-family home will typically be permitted as a primary structure, but a shed or greenhouse will likely be an accessory structure.

In some communities, the zoning provisions do not specifically discuss or identify some or all structures in their list of permitted uses in various zoning districts. If that is the case in the community where your farm is located, you may be able to demonstrate that the structure you intend to use is similar to another type of use that is contemplated in your local jurisdiction. Keep in mind that in some jurisdictions if an activity or structure is not specifically allowed, that may mean it is prohibited.

At the same time, some activities may only be allowed as accessory uses to another allowed primary structure or activity on the property. For example, in some zoning districts, on-site agricultural sales may only be allowed as an accessory use to the primary permitted use of crop agriculture.

Zoning and permitting rules change over time in response to strategic planning and community advocacy. For up to date, local information you will need to consult your local municipality. In most municipalities, zoning and permitting information is housed in the city or county planning department. Enforcement of zoning and permit applications may be housed in other municipal departments. For example, in Baltimore City, livestock permit applications and enforcement fall under the Baltimore City Health Department, Office of Animal Control’s Regulation of Wild, Exotic, and Hybrid Animals.

To find out what the rules are, it’s usually best to start with the planning department. Be patient and professional when communicating with municipal staff, and know that, especially in large cities, front desk staff in departments other than the planning department may not be familiar with urban agriculture, or up to date on the latest zoning and permitting changes.

How do I find my city’s zoning maps and building codes?

If you have not already done so, or if you are considering an expansion or a change in your operation, you will want to find out what city or county zoning regulations apply to the property. Local municipalities typically have zoning maps available for the public to review, often at city or county planning offices, or online. This is an important step before making any changes to the land. If you build something or start an activity that is not allowed by the zoning regulations you may be forced to remove your improvements and may even be fined.

For land located in Maryland, watch the video “Understanding and Participating in Local Planning and Zoning” on Maryland’s Agriculture Law Education Initiative’s website at www.umaglaw.org for information about how to find a parcel’s zoning, and the video “How to Access a Farm’s Land Records” for step-by-step instructions on how to find the liber (book) and folio (page) numbers, which you may need to locate your parcel on your county’s zoning map.

Below is a resource list for zoning and permitting in some of Maryland’s major urban areas.

 
Incorporated Cities
Planning Departments

Anne Arundel County

Annapolis

Anne Arundel County Office of Planning and Zoning: https://www.aacou
nty.org/departments/planning-and-zoning/

Annapolis Planning and Zoning:
https://www.annapolis.gov/398/Planning-Zoning

Baltimore City*

*Baltimore is one of only three “Independent Cities” outside of Virginia. This means it operates essentially as a county.

Not applicable

Baltimore City Planning Department: https://planning.baltimorecity.gov/

Zoning maps: https://planning.baltimorecity.gov/maps-data/GIS

Within the Planning Department, the Baltimore Office of Sustainability has helpful educational materials about urban agriculture zoning and permitting: https://www.baltimoresustainability.org/

Baltimore County

None, all administration is by county government

Baltimore County Planning Department: https://www.baltimorecountymd.
gov/Agencies/planning

Very helpful map searchable by address: https://bcgis.baltimorecounty
md.gov/myneighborhood/

Frederick County

Brunswick, Frederick

Frederick County Department of Planning and Permitting: https://frederickcountymd.gov/4592/Planning-Permitting

City of Frederick Planning Department: https://www.cityoffrederick.com/221/Planning

Brunswick (search for Planning Commission): https://brunswickmd.gov

Howard
County

None, all administration is by county government

Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning: https://www.howardcountymd.gov/Departments/Planning-and-Zoning

Montgomery County

Gathersburg, Rockville, and Takoma Park

Montgomery County Planning Department:
https://montgomeryplanning.org/

Gaithersburg Planning and Code Administration: https://www.gaithersburgmd.gov/government/departments/planning-and-code-administration

Rockville Planning and Development Services: https://rockvillemd.gov/159/Planning-and-Development-Services

Takoma Park City Planning:
https://takomaparkmd.gov/government/hous
ing-and-community-development/city-planning/

Prince George’s County

Bowie, College Park, District Heights, Glenarden, Greenbelt, Hyattsville, Laurel, Mount Rainier, New Carrollton, Seat Pleasant

Prince George’s County Planning Department: http://www.pgplanning.org/166/Planning-Department

Bowie Planning and Community Development Department: https://www.cityofbowie.org/149/Planning-Community-Development

College Park Department of Planning, Community, and Economic Development: https://www.collegeparkmd.gov/159/Planning-Community-Economic-Development

District Heights Economic Development Planning and Zoning Committee: http://www.districtheights.org/government/the-mayors-office/economic-advisory-board/

Glenarden Planning and Economic Development: https://cityofglenarden.org/government/departments/planning-economic-development/

Greenbelt Planning and Community Development: https://www.greenbeltmd.gov/government/departments/planning-community-development

Hyattsville Planning and Zoning: https://www.hyattsville.org/210/Planning-Zoning

Laurel Planning and Zoning: https://www.cityoflaurel.org/ecd/planning

Mount Rainier Zoning: https://www.mountrainiermd.org/departments/code-enforcement/zoning-and-property-info

New Carrollton City Charter and Code: https://www.newcarrolltonmd.gov/government/city_charter_and_code

All zoning is local

The City of Baltimore, Maryland, established two Chesapeake Bay Critical Area overlay zones to guide development around the Chesapeake Bay and promote resource conservation. One of the zones allows a number of agricultural uses, including farms and produce stands, by right. Baltimore, MD, Zoning Code § 1A05.2 (2017).

The City of Salina, Kansas, has a zoning ordinance that allows accessory structures, such as greenhouses, in all zoning districts, but they cannot exceed 360 square feet and can be no taller than the primary structure or 16 feet in height, whichever is less. Salina Kan., Code § 42-58 (2017).

Elmurst, Illinois, bans hoop houses, but allows smaller low tunnels or low cold frames that are no taller than 3 feet and no bigger than 100 square feet in size.

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