Comment: Rural Subdivisions and the Agricultural Exemption to Iowa County Zoning after Lang v. Linn County

by Gary Taylor

This article originally appeared in the Legal Briefs section of the May “The Iowa County” magazine.

Iowa Code 335.2 states that county zoning cannot be enforced against “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 agricultural exemption has been the subject of court cases throughout the years focusing on what constitutes a “use for agricultural purposes.”  Despite the lessons provided by these cases, county officials still wrestle with many unanswered questions about the interpretation of section 335.2. One of the most vexing issues has been rural acreages and large-lot rural subdivisions.  Is the owner of a five-acre residence who has a job in the nearby city qualified for the exemption if he raises an acre or two of crops or a few head of livestock?

On March 29 the Iowa Supreme Court decided Lang v. Linn County Board of Adjustment, in which the Court reviewed two separate decisions by the county to deny exemptions for two separate parcels: a 6.52-acre parcel that included the Langs’ residence, and a 43.3-acre parcel with 2 houses.  While the case does not definitively answer the exemption question for every rural acreage, it does provide several helpful guidelines for county officials going forward.

The Court began by pointing out the differences between the language of section 335.2 as it appears today, and as it was prior to amendments made in 1963.  The differences were critical to the Court’s reasoning.  Prior to 1963 the statute was concerned with land, farm houses and buildings “which are adapted, by reason of nature and area, for use for agricultural purposes as a primary means of livelihood, while so used.” Thus, prior to 1963 the statute did not contain the word “primarily,” (“primarily adapted”) but did tie the exemption to use for agricultural purposes “as a primary means of livelihood” for the landowner.

In the Court’s view, the addition of the word “primarily” allows county zoning authorities to consider “the relative size, value, and construction date of the house compared to the scope, value, and duration of the claimed agricultural activities,” and deny the exemption when the agricultural activities “are basically a sideline designed to obtain an agricultural zoning exemption for the owners’ residence.”  For the Langs’ residence on 6.52-acres, the Court determined that it was a “a residential tail wagging a farmland dog and that the property as a whole was not primarily dedicated to agriculture.” Although the Langs claimed in their exemption filing to be producing trees, raspberries, blackberries, asparagus, apples, grapes, and tomatoes, they provided no records of production or sales. Photographs indicated that the asparagus, grape vines and raspberry bushes, at least, were wild and in a wooded thicket. The Court did not believe that “the legislature intended to allow a homeowner to avoid county zoning requirements simply by having a tomato patch in his or her backyard.”

The Langs also claimed that the county improperly applied a minimum acreage test and flunked the Langs’ 6.52-acre parcel simply because it was too small.  Previous cases have held that a county cannot use parcel size as the sole measure for determining whether a parcel is primarily adapted for agriculture; however, in Lang the Court affirmed that parcel size can be one of the factors considered when making the determination, stating that “if size were not relevant, then nothing could prevent a developer from obtaining a zoning exemption for an entire development subdivided into half-acre lots so long as some agricultural product were planted in the development and tended by the homeowners.”

Because the Linn County Zoning Ordinance prohibits more than one dwelling on a single undivided parcel of land, the Langs sought an exemption for a second house built on a 43.3-acre tract, claiming that the occupant (the Langs’ son) would be performing farming tasks on the property.  The county did not dispute that the 43.3 acres should be considered agricultural, but disagreed that the second house was “primarily adapted” for agriculture since the son had a regular day job, and that he would be spending only 2 1/2-hours per day at most on farming activities.  The Court sided with the county, stating that “it is appropriate for the county to ask how much time the tenants of the house spend on farming activities. Otherwise, a farmer could erect multiple homes and avoid county zoning simply by assigning nominal farm tasks to an occupant of each home.” Implicit in the Court’s reasoning is that although a landowner no longer must show that the property is his “primary means of livelihood,” the landowner must be able to closely tie the activities of the person occupying the house to the agricultural production taking place on the property.

The Court concluded with a common-sense observation of how misapplying the exemption to rural acreages has the potential to cause problems in the future: “When a house has been erected by taking advantage of an agricultural exemption, but then is later sold to a person who is not engaged in agriculture, the house becomes a nonconforming use, which limits the new owner’s ability to modify or, if necessary, to rebuild the house.”

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