Do I Have An “Urban Farm” or an “Urban Garden”?: Proposed Amendments To Detroit’s Urban Agriculture Zoning Ordinance

As all Detroit farmers and gardeners know, it is currently illegal to keep livestock in Detroit. While a push was made to legalize urban livestock in 2013, when the Detroit zoning ordinance was amended to specifically allow for urban farms and gardens, the topic proved to be a controversial one. The question of urban livestock was put off for another time and now that time has come. The City Planning Commission is holding a public hearing next week to review amendments to Detroit’s zoning ordinance that would specify what kind of livestock may be kept in Detroit, how many animals may be kept, how much space animals must be given, and how far away the animals must be from your neighbors.


However, this is another amendment that is being proposed along with the livestock amendments that is very important and that is the amendment to the definition of an “urban garden” and an “urban farm.” This blog post will discuss the current definitions of an “urban farm” and an “urban garden.” It will then discuss the proposed amendments to those definitions and what it means for urban agriculture in Detroit


Currently, an urban farm is defined as “[a] zoning lot, as defined in this article, over one acre” while an urban garden is defined as “[a] zoning lot, as defined in this article, up to one acre of land.” The natural question that is very important for understanding these two definitions is the definition of a “zoning lot.” A zoning lot is a single tract of land located within a single block. Zoning lots are typically divided by alleys and streets. Drawings can really help with this definition, so let’s look below.

Screenshot 2016-07-16 18.31.21


In the example provided in this drawing, one grower owns a series of scattered lots outlined in black above. In total, all of these lots add up to over 1 acre so the grower might think their operation is an “urban farm” as defined above. However, that would be incorrect. For the purposes of the zoning definition, each of the 4 areas outlined above would be regarded as a distinct “zoning lot” because they are separated from the other lots by either an alley or a street. An urban farm is defined as a zoning lot that is over one acre. In this example provided above, no zoning lot is over one acre. Therefore, this person would have 4 urban gardens rather than 1 urban farm for the purposes of Detroit’s zoning ordinance.


At this point, you might be asking why this matters. Let’s assume that the properties above are in a neighborhood that is zoned for residential use. This is a safe assumption since most of Detroit’s urban farms and gardens are in vacant residential areas. In such areas, urban gardens are a “by-right” land use while urban farms are a “conditional” land use. What this means in practice is that if you want to start an urban garden, all you have to do is submit a change of use permit to the Building, Safety Engineering, and Environmental Department at the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center and your urban garden is legal and protected under Detroit’s zoning ordinance. However, if you wanted to start an urban farm you would have to prepare a site plan for the City’s review, would have to pay a $1,000 conditional land use hearing fee, and the City has the right to approve or deny your proposed use for the property. As you can see, the difference between being classified as an urban garden or an urban farm is important for the purposes of the zoning ordinance.


Now let’s get to the amendments. As mentioned above, the current definitions of “urban garden” and “urban farm” created a loophole. It’s possible for many people that are farming a series of lots in a neighborhood to have their farm classified as a number of urban gardens rather than one urban farm. However, this was never the intention of the zoning ordinance. The intention of the zoning ordinance was to subject agricultural projects that were over one acre to the site plan review process based on the theory that once a project becomes larger than 1 acre it starts to change the character of a residential neighborhood.


The proposed amendments to the zoning ordinance would close the loophole described above. The definition of urban farm would be amended to read as follows: “Over one acre of land, under common ownership, which is: contiguous; or, non-contiguous and on the same block; or, contiguous or non-contiguous and separated by a right-of-way not greater than 60 feet in width…” In plain English, the amended definition of an “urban farm” would close the loophole described above and would classify more agricultural operations in Detroit as an urban farm. Essentially, all of the property owned by one person or organization in a concentrated area would count towards the 1-acre threshold. This is true even if the properties are separated by an alley or a residential street. Let’s go back to the drawing.

Screenshot 2016-07-16 18.31.21

With the previous definitions of “urban farm” and “urban garden”, the operation above would have been classified as 4 urban gardens. With the amended definitions, the operation above would be regarded as one urban farm because they would be considered lots under common ownership that are non-contiguous and separated by a right-of-way of not more than 60 feet.


For growers, the essential takeaway is this: if you have a medium-scale growing operation, it is unlikely that you will now be able to take advantage of the urban garden loophole that would have allowed you to classify your medium-scale growing operation as a series of urban gardens rather than one urban farm. Let’s also circle back to why this matters one more time. This matters because most urban farms and urban gardens exist in residential neighborhoods and in those neighborhoods an urban garden is a “by-right” land use. As a “by-right” land use, you have to submit a permit to the Building, Safety Engineering, and Environmental Department to notify the City that you’ve started an urban garden, but the City cannot have any say as to the design of your garden or whether it’s a good fit for the neighborhood. Conversely, an “urban farm” is a “conditional” land use in residential neighborhoods. This means that you have to submit a site plan to the City of Detroit detailing what your proposed use of the property will be and they can have a say as to what the urban farm looks like. Further, if the City doesn’t think your project is a good fit for the neighborhood, they can deny your permit for your urban farm.


The zoning ordinance amendments regarding urban livestock are certainly the focal point of the recently proposed changes regarding urban agriculture in Detroit. However, growers should also be aware of the proposed amendments to the definitions of what constitutes an “urban garden” and an “urban farm”. In closing the urban garden loophole, the path to legalization for growers will become a little bit more challenging.

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