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A m e r i c a n f a r m l a n d t r u s t · F a r m l a n d i n f o r m a t i o n c e n t e r

DESCRIPTION farming operations are relatively intensive.
Several county APZ ordinances in Maryland per-
Agricultural protection zoning refers to county mit a maximum density of one unit per 20 acres.
and municipal zoning ordinances that support In areas where land is less expensive and exten-
and protect farming by stabilizing the agricultur- sive farming operations such as ranches predomi-
al land base. APZ designates areas where farm- nate, much lower densities may be required to
ing is the desired land use, generally on the basis prevent fragmentation of the land base. In
of soil quality as well as a variety of locational Wyoming and Colorado, counties are not
factors. Other land uses are discouraged. APZ permitted to control subdivision of lots that are
ordinances vary in what activities are permitted larger than 35 acres. The 35-acre provision has
in agricultural zones. The most restrictive regula- led to the creation of hundreds of 35-acre
tions prohibit any uses that might be incompati- “ranchettes” in both states, fragmenting ranches
ble with commercial farming. The density of resi- into parcels that are too small for successful
FACT dential development is limited by APZ.
Maximum densities range from one dwelling
commercial ranching.

SHEET per 20 acres in the eastern United States to one
residence per 640 acres in the West.
Many towns and counties have agricultural/resi-
dential zoning that allows construction of houses
on lots of one to five acres. Although these zon-
In practice, the specific areas designated by ing ordinances permit farming, their function is
AGRICULTURAL APZ are generally called agricultural districts. more to limit the pace and density of develop-
In the context of farmland protection, however, ment than to protect commercial agriculture. In
these zoning districts, which are imposed by local fact, such ordinances often hasten the decline of
PROTECTION ordinances, are easily confused with voluntary agriculture by allowing residences to consume far
agricultural districts created by farmers under more land than necessary. AFT defines APZ as
statutes in 16 states. To avoid confusion, ordinances that allow no more than one house
ZONING American Farmland Trust refers to the mandato- for every 20 acres, support agricultural land uses
ry agricultural areas as agricultural protection and significantly restrict non-farm land uses.
zones, and the voluntary areas as agricultural
districts. HISTORY

APZ ordinances contain provisions that establish The courts first validated zoning as a legitimate
procedures for delineating agricultural zones and exercise of police power in the 1920s, giving
defining the land unit to which regulations local governments broad authority to regulate
apply. They specify allowable residential densities local land use. Rural counties in California,
and permitted uses, and sometimes include site Pennsylvania and Washington began using
design and review guidelines. Some local ordi- zoning to protect agricultural land from develop-
nances also contain right-to-farm provisions and ment during the mid-1970s. In 1981, the
authorize commercial agricultural activities, such National Agricultural Lands Study reported 270
TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE as farm stands, that enhance farm profitability. counties with agricultural zoning. In 1995, an
Herrick Mill, One Short Street Occasionally, farmers in an agricultural protec- informal AFT survey found nearly 700 jurisdic-
Northampton, MA 01060 tion zone are required to prepare conservation or tions in 24 states with some form of APZ.
Tel: (413) 586-4593
farm management plans.
Fax: (413) 586-9332
The definition of APZ varies with jurisdiction
NATIONAL OFFICE and by region of the country. A minimum lot size APZ helps towns and counties reserve their most
1200 18th Street, NW, Suite 800 of 20 acres, combined with other restrictions, productive soils for agriculture. It stabilizes the
Washington, DC 20036
may be sufficient to reduce development pres- agricultural land base by keeping large tracts of
Tel: (202) 331-7300
Fax: (202) 659-8339
sures in areas where land is very expensive and land relatively free of non-farm development,
The Farmland Information Center is a public/private partnership between American Farmland Trust and the USDA Natural
September 1998 Resources Conservation Service that provides technical information about farmland protection.
A m e r i c a n f a r m l a n d t r u s t · F a r m l a n d i n f o r m a t i o n c e n t e r

thus reducing conflicts between farmers and their · APZ is flexible. If economic conditions change,
non-farming neighbors. Communities also use the zoning can be modified as necessary.
APZ to conserve a “critical mass” of agricultural
land, enough to keep individual farms from DRAWBACKS
becoming isolated islands in a sea of residential
neighborhoods. Maintaining a critical mass of · APZ is not permanent. Changes in APZ
agricultural land and farms allows the retention ordinances can open up large areas of
AGRICULTURAL of an agricultural infrastructure and support ser- agricultural land for development.
vices, such as equipment dealers and repair facili-
ties, feed mills, fertilizer and pesticide suppliers, · APZ can reduce land values, which decreases
PROTECTION veterinarians, spraying and seeding contractors, farmers’ equity in land. For this reason, farmers
food processors and specialized financial services. sometimes oppose APZ, making it difficult to
All of these agricultural businesses need their enact.
ZONING farm customers to stay profitable.
· APZ may be difficult to monitor and enforce on
APZ can also limit land speculation, which dri- a day-to-day basis.
For additional information on ves up the fair market value of farm and ranch
agricultural protection zoning land. By restricting the development potential of · County APZ ordinances do not protect
and other farmland protection large properties, APZ is intended to keep land agricultural land against annexation by
programs, the Farmland affordable to farmers. A strong ordinance can municipalities.
Information Center offers pub- demonstrate to farmers that the town or county
lications, an on-line library and sees agriculture as a long-term, economically
technical assistance. To order viable activity, instead of an interim land use.
Agricultural Protection Zoning: Source: American Farmland Trust, Saving American
What Works, a 34-page com- Finally, APZ helps promote orderly growth by Farmland: What Works (Northampton, Mass., 1997).
prehensive technical report preventing sprawl into rural areas, and benefits
($14.95), or other AFT publica- farmers and non-farmers alike by protecting
tions, call (800) 370-4879. scenic landscapes and maintaining open space.
The farmland information
library is a searchable database BENEFITS
of literature, abstracts, statutes,
maps, legislative updates and · APZ is an inexpensive way to protect large
other useful resources. areas of agricultural land.
It can be reached at · By separating farms from non-agricultural land
For additional assistance on uses, APZ reduces the likelihood of conflicts
specific topics, call the between farmers and non-farming neighbors.
technical assistance service
at (413) 586-4593. · APZ helps prevent suburban sprawl and
reduces infrastructure costs.

· Compared to purchase of conservation
easement and transfer of development rights
programs, APZ can be implemented relatively

· APZ is easy to explain to the public because
most landowners are familiar with zoning.

American Farmland Trust works to stop the loss of productive farmland and to promote farming practices that lead to a
healthy environment.