Two houses on acreages in Linn County do not qualify for ag. exemption to county zoning

by Gary Taylor

Lang, et al., v. Linn County Board of Adjustment
(Iowa Court of Appeals, April 25, 2012)

The agricultural exemption to county zoning in Iowa – Iowa Code 335.2 – reads in part:

Except to the extent required to implement section 335.27, no ordinance adopted under this chapter applies to land, farm houses, farm barns, farm outbuildings or other buildings or structures which are primarily adapted, by reason of nature and area, for use for agricultural purposes, while so used.

This case is a consolidation of two cases, both involving houses built in the late 1990s on separate parcels (one parcel of 6.52 acres, the other approximately 35 acres) that were originally part of a larger 49-acre parcel.  After addressing the standard the court uses to review decisions by boards of adjustment (“A board’s action must be upheld if supported by any competent and substantial evidence.”) the court got to the substantive facts of the case.

House 1 – The Lang House.  House 1 was occupied by the Langs, and sits on 6.52 acres.  The Langs argued their activities of living in the house and growing trees, berries, asparagus, grapes, apples, tomatoes, and farm fish, as well as participating in government farm programs, qualified as “agricultural purposes” under the statute for both the house and the land.  The court noted that the only proof the Langs offered of an agricultural purpose—defined in prior caselaw as “the art or science of cultivating the ground, harvesting of crops and rearing and management of livestock”—was their assertion through an agricultural exemption sheet on which they listed the following activities as “commercial production”:

1. Trees, 4 to 5 acres, 80% for commercial production
2. Raspberries, 0.1 acres, 10% for commercial production
3. Blackberries, 0.1 acres, 10% for commercial production
4. Asparagus, Apples, 1.0 acres, 75% for commercial production
5. Grapes, tomatoes, 0.2 acres, 15% for commercial production

The Langs did not offer any additional evidence to support “commercial production,” such as tax returns or other financial records.  They argued that the Linn County Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) improperly applied a “minimum acreage test” for the land, and since the legislature removed the “primary means of livelihood test” from the statute in 1963 the only question the ZBA should be asking is whether the Langs were “engaged in agriculture.”  In response the court simply stated that it did not read the ZBA’s findings to apply a minimum acreage test. The court also

Recognizing that Iowa case law has not defined the term “farm house” for purposes of the exemption, the court cited with approval a 1997 Attorney General opinion stating that a “farm house” is one in which the occupants, “are engaged in agriculture on the land where the house [is] located.”

While we appreciate that the Langs have participated in land conservation and tree planting projects, as well as growing some fruits and vegetables, the Langs failed to demonstrate to the ZBA those activities were sufficient to prove they were using House 1 and the 6.52-acre parcel for agricultural purposes. Similarly, although the Langs’ property has some of the attributes that a small farm or small agricultural enterprise may have, the Langs simply did not demonstrate that they cultivated the ground, harvested crops, or reared and managed livestock to an extent warranting an agricultural exemption …. Without that showing, they could not substantiate that House 1 and the 6.52-acre parcel were “primarily adapted, by reason of nature and area, for use for agricultural purposes.  We recognize that small-scale agricultural production should not be discouraged. However, at some point a line has to be drawn to determine what qualifies under the statute as “agricultural use” and what is more akin to a rural acreage. The Board, after considering all of the evidence submitted by the Langs, drew that line and determined House 1 and the 6.52-acre parcel were not used for “agricultural purposes” under the statute.

House 2 – The Tenant House.  House 2 was originally intended for use by the Langs’ son, so he could assist with farm operations after completing college. When the Langs’ son did not occupy the house, the Langs decided they would rent it to other tenants.  The Tiernans (the original tenants) kept work logs of their activities related to the acreage.  The logs showed that over a 21-month period the tenants averaged at most 3.7 hours per day toward caring for the land, trees, and fish production, and 2.6 hours per day if tasks not clearly related to these activities were removed.  The court affirmed that under the statue, the key consideration is whether House 2 and the land are “primarily adapted, by reason of nature and area, for use for agricultural purposes.” The Langs argued that the ZBA applied the language in such a way that it amounted to the “primary means of livelihood” test, which the legislature removed in 1963. The court disagreed, noting that the ZBA considered, among other things, the amount of time devoted to the performance of the work duties and that the ZBA was looking at whether the tenants were “primarily engaged” in agriculture, not whether their primary livelihood was being made from agricultural activities on the land. Because the facts provided a basis for the ZBA’s decision, the court refused to overturn the decision.

Justice Tabor issued a dissenting opinion, disagreeing first with the majority’s characterization of the case as one that simply requires finding substantial evidence to support the ZBA’s decision.  She instead would look at the district court’s interpretation of the ag exemption, which the court of appeals is not required to give deference.  She viewed statements from the Linn County Zoning Administrator – that “the county has honored the exemption for years and now the property is reduced to a 6-acre tract with a pond and some berries” – as an implicit application of a minimum acreage test which the ZBA followed.  She noted that in a June 8, 2004 contempt ruling, Judge Newmeister found that Daryl Lang “carries on two agricultural purposes on the parcel he owns in Linn County. He grows trees and he has a fish farm,” and thus the focus of the ZBA’s analysis should have been “whether the Langs’ use of their property had changed since the county recognized the original forty-eight-acre tract as falling under the agricultural exemption.”  She went on to observe:

The majority decision gives a nod to smaller farms, recognizing that “small-scale agriculture should not be discouraged.” The decision goes on to say that some line drawing must be done between what qualifies as an “agricultural use” and “what is more akin to a rural acreage.” I agree that the size of the acreage is a relevant factor in determining whether the property is used for agricultural purposes, but I disagree that a board of adjustment can draw an arbitrary line that parcels of less than ten acres cannot be “primarily adapted” for agricultural purposes. Now that the conventional view of Iowa agriculture as the production of corn, soybeans, cattle, and hogs is being challenged by the emergence of Community Supported Agriculture involving smaller farms growing fruits, vegetables, and livestock, it is critical that county boards of adjustment do not employ a litmus test for the number of acres necessary to qualify for an agricultural exemption….Had the board applied the proper legal test, it is likely that the crops listed on the Langs’ agricultural exemption information sheet would have satisfied the statute’s requirement that the land be “primarily adapted” for agricultural purposes.

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