Understanding zoning regulations can save valuable time and money before proceeding with farm-based ventures.

The best resource is a town’s code enforcement officer who deals with such issues on a daily basis.

Cornell Cooperative Extension specialist Elizabeth Higgins provided other valuable advice during a recent webinar, “Local Zoning 101,” that provided a comprehensive look at things farm owners should consider before seeking approval for various projects.

“Zoning will determine what uses are allowed by right and what uses you need to get actual approvals for,” she said. “And you need to be aware that there are a lot of different codes. If you build something that isn’t to code, the retrofits and fines can be a very big hassle. Fines can be significant.”

Like any business, location is critical. Many rural communities are farm friendly and welcome agribusinesses. But a suburban town with dense residential neighborhoods might not be so welcoming, and they may shun projects whose noise and odors offend others.

Higgins recommends checking a municipality’s codes to see what uses are allowed in specific areas.

“At the end of the day, local people make the rules,” she said. “Is the location so important that it is worth all the hoops you’re going to jump through?”

There’s a difference between a permitted use and one that requires a special permit. For example, processing jams and jellies might be a permitted use in an area zoned as agricultural-rural residential.

A golf course also might be allowed, but it may require special permitting following a review by the local planning and zoning boards.

Towns with “right to farm” laws strongly protect existing farm businesses and land uses from unreasonable local laws. Still, a variance is likely required if the farm business is a new use currently prohibited by local zoning, such as raising pigs.

“The local government still has the right to make zoning restrictions,” she said. “They just can’t be considered unreasonable.”

In a related matter, ag building code exemptions generally do not apply to buildings where people work, conduct business or live. Building permits, though, are still required.

A town’s zoning regulations may be found online at e-Code360 or on the community’s website. Typically, this tells what each specific part of a town is zoned for agricultural, highway commercial or industrial use.

Higgins provided some tips for success.

“Definitely get to know your code enforcement officer,” she said. “They’re really somebody you should talk to and have a conversation with.

“Get a sense of how receptive they are, what issues you might encounter, and what state or federal laws you are likely to encounter,” she added.

Sometimes, depending on the project, various environmental or health codes will also come into play.

Higgins also talked about what not to do. For example, don’t build first and hope for the best with regard to approvals. And don’t try to circumvent the process.

At the same time, don’t be a push-over, and know your rights, she said.

The most important thing is researching allowable uses and determining the likelihood of support for a project before buying property. Some parts of upstate New York such as the New York City Watershed and Adirondack Park are highly restrictive toward business use.

Regulatory expenses such as soil testing and legal transactions should be considered costs of doing business.

Lastly, if a prospective business owner doesn’t like existing rules and regulations, maybe they should try to change them by getting involved. Higgins said to try to get on a local planning or zoning board, and push for policies that will help ag-related businesses thrive.

“You shouldn’t assume that if you want to do something you will be allowed to do something,” she said. “Local government still has the right to make zoning restrictions. If you’re not in an ag district, they will determine what happens to that land.”

Paul Post is a freelance writer in eastern New York. He can be reached at paulpost@nycap.rr.com.