Horse-Related Zoning Battles

Zoning battles can arise in any community. Sometimes they originate from the local government that might want to change the laws to make it harder to stable horses. Or, you might bring your own matter before a local zoning board. Here are some examples of zoning battles:

Prompted by a neighboring property owner, the local government might propose a land use change that adversely affects your property

The municipality or property owners can propose changes to the way land in the community can be used. Sometimes the proposals try to make it more difficult to keep horses (although horse supporters can always seek changes through their local governments to make zoning favorable to horses). Other times, horses become an unintended casualty of other proposals, such as when a developer petitions to re-zone certain property, formerly used as riding trails, to allow construction of new subdivisions, shopping centers, or facilities.


What if you want to expand your barn, but your plans would run afoul of a set-back restriction requiring at least a 50-foot distance from the barn to the edge of your property? Even though your proposal would violate the law, you still can ask for a variance. Municipalities differ on how a variance can be sought, but variances are typically issued through entities known as the Zoning Board of Appeals or board of adjustment. This body functions to review special matters and hardship cases, and it has the power to recommend officially that the property owner may deviate from the black-letter language of the ordinance. This is most likely to happen if the deviation (the change from the rule) is minor and the existing ordinance would work a hardship or other difficulty on the property owner.

Before the hearing on a variance, the municipality will give notice to owners of property located within a certain distance from your lot. The notice will advise the nearby landowners about your petition for a variance, the nature of the variance you seek, and the date and time of a hearing on the variance petition. With that information, those landowners will have the opportunity to attend the hearing and voice their comments – positive or negative – about the proposed variance. After the variance petition has progressed through that stage, hearings may follow before the planning commission and later before the governing body.

Going Before the Municipal Government

Before your community passes a new ordinance or a changed ordinance that will somehow affect your ability to keep and enjoy horses, the local government will announce the proposed change and hold one or more public hearings. If you plan to attend and speak out at a public hearing, keep these ideas in mind to improve your chances of success:

— Remember Your Audience. Who runs the hearings and meetings of the planning commission or local governing body? Typically, municipal leaders. These people have merely seen horses race at the track or patrol the downtown streets. Especially if you reside in the more urban areas, you can safely assume that these people have never owned horses. As a result, remember that you cannot appeal to them as horse lovers in order to win their support for your position.

— Learn the Lingo, and Understand the Legislative Process. In Your Community Local government leaders speak a different language, or so it seems. Their talk is loaded with terms unfamiliar to most horse people. Learn them. Here are just a few of these terms:

o Public hearing – A public hearing is a proceeding open to the public where a municipal body evaluates possible action, such as enacting a new zoning regulation. Often, these hearings give members of the public (and their attorneys) a chance to comment on the proposed regulation or ask questions of the municipal leaders or consultants. Typically, under the law, the local government must hold a public hearing before amending a zoning ordinance.

o Setback restriction – Setback restrictions are restrictions that prevent a landowner from situating structures, such as barns or outbuildings, or fences within a certain distance from a property line, curb, or other structure.

o Planning Commission or Planning Board – State laws typically authorize local governments to establish planning commissions or planning boards. Generally speaking, these bodies are set up to advise the municipality on land restrictions and issues. In many cases, the planning commission will hold public hearings, take its own vote on a proposed zoning measure, and then submit a report to the municipal government. After that, the government can hold its own public hearings and then make its decision.

o Grandfather clause – A grandfather clause is a provision in a new law that exempts those who were not in compliance with the law when it took effect. For example, if a new zoning ordinance provides that horse barns must be located 50 feet or more from a lot line, a grandfather clause might provide that barns existing when the law took effect may continue their operations, even if the barns are located less than 50 feet from the lot line.

— Stay Aware of Local Government Meeting Agendas Know where the local government publishes or posts meeting notices for its planning commission and governing body. Keep aware of whether the agenda includes matters of interest to you. Remember that the municipality must give advance notice of its agenda and cannot “sneak in” an important measure, such as a revamped horse ordinance, without following proper channels for advance notice and hearings to the residents.

— Consider Establishing an Association A well-organized group of horse proponents can strengthen the odds for success. The association can pool its resources and raise funds. Associations can also assign members to track important local government meeting dates, hire lawyers or consultants when needed, develop a network of interested members who will contact concerned residents about key meetings, evaluate zoning or land use ordinance proposals and developing reasonable alternatives, plan orderly presentations at public hearings, and share important information with concerned residents.

— Consider Exposing the Community and its Leadership To Horses in a Positive Way If you are allowed to do so, consider inviting local planning commissioners and community leaders to a friendly, well-organized “open house” or community barn tour. In planning the event, of course, you will hand-pick presentable facilities, invite all members of the planning commission, local government, and others, and tour the guests through the facilities. This type of event may virtually become an eye-opener to some and might help them abandon long-held prejudices that horses somehow generate foul sights, sounds, and odors, or that horses threaten property values.

— Seek to Gain the Community’s Support Through Community Activities Another example of ways in which horse supporters can develop good community relations is to hold fund-raising activities with an equine theme. For example, a leader in the community where this author lives has organized the “Franklin, Michigan Fox Hunt.” In this event, several riders from Southeast Michigan gather on horseback for a fun, quiet ride through the streets of Franklin (a quaint suburb of Detroit, Michigan) with a few jumping opportunities in pastures of cooperative residents and a gathering in the town square. An invitation-only dinner reception follows, which is well attended by municipal leaders. All participants must make a cash donation to the community association. The event has been successful. In 1997, for example, it raised several thousand dollars, which were earmarked for the community association to plant new trees. Without question, the event strengthened ties between the horse supporters and the community.

What to Consider When the Hearings and Proposals Begin

Let’s assume that the municipality has now drafted a proposed new ordinance, or it seeks to change the old one, that affects horse keeping. The process, which some might call a “battle,” has begun. Now, more than ever, your need for organization is paramount. Here are some ideas:

— Read All Ordinance Proposals Very Carefully If the municipality presents a proposal to change an existing ordinance or to enact a new one, read it very carefully. Understand exactly how the proposed new ordinance varies from the old, and consider drafting a chart that thoroughly compares features of the two.

— Plan a Careful and Reasonable Strategy Threatening the local government or its members is a sure promise of failure. Be reasonable when addressing the local planning commission or governing body. Be respectful, not disruptive, at meetings. Show the municipal leaders that you share their concerns.

Some business people, such as real estate developers, who have had success with local governments have been known to remain in attendance at municipal meetings long after the hearing on their issue has ended. Just a few hours of quiet attendance – in which they do nothing more than sit quietly near the front row while the meeting continues – can have tremendous impact on the decision makers and help earn their respect.

— Consider Appointing a “Leader” A likeable member of the community, particularly someone who has earned respect in the community or has a distinguished history of serving in local government positions, will help lend credibility to your group when addressing the local government.

— Listen to the Municipal Leaders Where allowed by law (Open Meetings Act laws or similar laws require almost all local government meetings to take place in public), consider meeting with members of the municipal body before or between hearings on your issue, even if these people do not share your support of horses. If the matter at issue is an undesirable zoning or land use proposal, ask a member of the municipal body why it is being proposed. Discuss their concerns. Talking to those on the other side of the proposal might be far more productive than you think.

Keep in mind that a strategy of confronting local officials can be risky, especially if you confront them before a scheduled vote. At this stage, it is possible that you will be perceived as trying to influence their vote. Many officials will avoid meeting with you to avoid even the appearance of influence, and your credibility could be impaired as a result.

— Listen to the Non-Horse Members of Your Community What are the non-horse-oriented residents of your community saying about a proposed ordinance or change? Consider meeting with local residents and groups. Explain your proposal and try to gain their support. Ask for their comments and listen carefully. Their comments might prompt you to alter or modify the zoning change you are proposing. By listening to their concerns and taking them into account, you will be ready to respond to objections at the public hearings – or you may have avoided objections entirely. You may also have expanded your list of supporters.

— Borrow Helpful Language from Other Ordinances Municipal governments frequently borrow language from other community ordinances. If you can locate favorable ordinances from nearby areas – especially those that have been in effect, without challenge, for many years – consider presenting them to your own municipality. You might be able to use their words as an alternative to the unfavorable proposal at issue.

— Actively Involve Your Allies Because municipal leaders typically fear making unpopular decisions, there is strength in numbers. When important hearings or meetings take place, bring as many people as possible. Written petitions loaded with signatures are helpful, but a room full of concerned, cooperative constituents can say far more.

— Accentuate the Positive Help the municipality’s leaders understand the true importance of horses to the community. Show the extent to which horses have impacted the community. For example, discuss how the community’s children are involved with horses and the degree of responsibility that horses foster. Explain how horses are central to community and school activities, such as Pony Clubs or 4-H programs, equestrian teams, handicapped riding programs, local horse shows, or other organized activities. Consider proving how horse shows and equine events have brought revenue into the community.

— Understand the Municipality’s Established Procedures Make sure that the municipality has not overstepped its bounds and has followed its established rules and procedures for meetings and hearings. For example, understand how far in advance of a public meeting the municipal body must post or publish its meeting notices.

— Never Underestimate the Importance of Professional Help Zoning battles are not just neighborhood discussions. They involve legal issues, and a knowledgeable lawyer can be your best coach. The lawyer, whether he or she works behind the scenes or as a visible member of the group, can help improve your chances of success. For example, a lawyer can address the municipality (where appropriate), retain professional planning consultants or environmental consultants, help select effective residents to address the municipality, review or write statements for residents to present at public hearings, develop effective relations with the media, and more.

When all else fails, sometimes zoning and land use conflicts must be resolved through the court system. A lawyer can evaluate whether an ordinance at issue, the manner in which it is applied, or the manner in which it was enacted is a proper target of a legal challenge.

Julie Fershtman is one of the nation?s most experienced equine law practitioners, has successfully tried equine cases before juries in four states, has drafted hundreds of equine industry contracts, and is a Fellow of the American College of Equine Attorneys. She is also author of three books involving equine law. For more information, visit

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