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Understanding Your Property’s Zoning – Not an Easy Task

Updated: Jul 23, 2020

By Sarah Everhart

Aerial picture of a farm (Photo by Edwin Remsberg).

As stewards of land, it is important that members of the agricultural community understand the zoning of property. If you think figuring out the zoning designation of a piece of property is as easy as referencing a map at the county zoning office, think again. A single piece of property in Maryland can have multiple zoning designations which all need to be understood in order to have the complete answer to the question of how a property is zoned.

Starting at the local level, you would visit a town zoning office if your property is within municipal limits or if not, the county zoning office. Some local zoning offices have zoning maps online but I would advise you confirm with a phone call or a trip to the local office to make sure you are looking at the most recently adopted map. Every property should have a zoning designation such as “Rural Residential” or “Rural Conservation.” Make sure you check if your property carries one zoning designation or if it is split zoned. For each zoning designation, you will need to review the zoning ordinance or zoning section of the town or county code to see what is permitted or restricted in that particular zone.

For example, if you are contemplating incorporating a commercial greenhouse component into your operation, you need to make sure that this type of use is permitted in your zone. If you can’t decipher what you need from a review of the zoning ordinance, you can either consult the zoning staff or hire independent counsel to advise you. You may need to go through a zoning approval process such as a special exception from the local Board of Appeals to be able to use your property for your particular use. A Board of Appeals proceeding is a quasi-judicial proceeding which can be a challenge. For example, if given notice, neighboring property owners testify against your request, the Board may not rule in your favor.

What if your desired use is not permitted in your zone? What are your options? It is important to understand that it is very difficult to change a zoning designation. Legally, a town or county may only change the zoning of a property during a comprehensive rezoning which typically occurs every 10 years or if the local body changes the zoning of the property due to a change in the neighborhood or a mistake.

If your property is within 1,000 feet of the waters of the State’s tidal water or wetlands, it will also have a Critical Area zoning designation. Most farmland is designated a Resource Conservation Area (RCA), but if your property is adjacent to residential development it could be designated a Limited Development Area (LDA). These designations are in addition to the local zoning designation and add another substantial layer of zoning restrictions on land such as required mitigation and buffers from sensitive areas. Your local zoning office should be able to tell you the Critical Area designation of your property and the restrictions present in that zone.

Local jurisdictions also create long-term planning documents called comprehensive plans. In these plans, the town or county classifies the current and future plans for all the property within and surrounding the political boundaries of the jurisdiction. Comprehensive plans are updated every 10 years and it is important that owners of rural properties examine these documents to ensure they understand the future plans for their property and the surrounding property. Would you want to buy farmland only to find out later that the county has designated the adjacent property as heavy industrial? No one can look into a crystal ball and predict future development, but looking at these plans can give you a good idea what parts of the town or county are planned to stay rural and what areas will be converted to development. Additionally, make sure you participate in the comprehensive plan process to ensure that you agree with the plan for your property.

The last important layer of zoning to understand is the growth tier or septic tier map designation of property. Back in 2012, the State passed a law called the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act which required all local bodies in the State to adopt a growth or septic tier map designating all land with one of four tier designations. The tiers are based on whether or not the property is served by a wastewater treatment plant, planned to be served by a wastewater treatment plant, could be developed with properties served by septic systems, or whether the land is planned for agriculture or conservation. A tier designation affects whether a property can be developed in the future using septic systems. Therefore, if you own farmland and intend to develop a portion of the property by carving off a few lots to finance your operation, you will want to confirm your property’s growth tier designation with your local zoning office, and how this designation will affect future development.

This post is meant to give a general overview, for legal advice on your zoning issue contact an attorney.

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