July 17, 2012 | General

Zoning Model For Urban Agriculture And Composting

Community gardens can be added to codes as a “defined use category” and allowed as “primary permitted use.” Composting then falls under “accessory use.”

Angel Arroyo-Rodriguez and Christopher Germain
BioCycle July 2012, Vol. 53, No. 7, p. 24

Community gardens, part of the overall urban agriculture movement, have seen rapid growth in popularity across the country over the past few years. In addition to increased access to fresher, healthier foods, thus improving food security, the gardens provide a stronger sense of community through development and maintenance of the project, renew productivity on vacated, underutilized land and create an opportunity for composting organic waste. While their informal nature makes obtaining a reliable count difficult, in Ohio there are an estimated 700 or more community gardens across the state, including at least 225 in Columbus/Central Ohio, 235 in Cleveland/Cuyahoga County and 54 in Dayton/Montgomery County.

The zoning code model serves as a guide to establish community gardens and composting activities in compliance with local and state land use and environmental rules.

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (Ohio EPA) supports urban agriculture activities because they can significantly advance the Agency’s organic waste diversion goals. In municipalities without curbside collection of food scraps and/or other organics, community gardens that compost or use other sustainable gardening methods offer an option for diverting organic wastes. Even if the amounts diverted are minimal and difficult to measure, they can make a positive impact on the operation and productivity of the gardens. Promoting composting in urban agriculture is a simple but significant step for fostering healthier, safer and more sustainable communities.

Zoning Code And Regulatory Considerations

Although desirable, establishment and operation of these agricultural sites can be impacted by various local and state regulations. At the local level, zoning codes determine if urban agriculture is an allowable land use, and where it can be conducted. Zoning codes also specify various structural design requirements, such as building heights and setback distances for greenhouses, hoop houses, composting bins, storage sheds and other structures. Requirements for operating hours, maintenance and governance are also common. Zoning codes may make a distinction between community gardens and urban farms, and have different requirements for each.
In addition, zoning codes may regulate composting activities in community gardens and urban farms. While some codes explicitly allow composting and may set some requirements as to how the activity must be conducted, others are not specific and might unintentionally discourage composting. Since composting also takes place in nonagricultural settings, the interaction between local codes and state regulations can be confusing.
Historically, accepting waste not generated on-site for composting is considered by Ohio EPA to be the same as providing a commercial disposal service, requiring full compliance with the composting facility regulations. As in most states, composting regulations have largely provided exemptions or exclusions for composting waste generated on-site, such as households doing backyard composting or farming operations. As sustainability initiatives move forward, Ohio EPA has evaluated this distinction between the historical intent of the composting regulations and what the community gardens and other interested groups are trying to achieve. However, community gardens do not typically generate enough feedstocks and bulking agents to have effective composting mixes or produce sufficient compost to meet their own needs. For community gardens to benefit from composting activities, a new regulatory strategy was needed.
Ohio’s new composting regulations, effective on April 2, 2012, make it easier for households, community gardens and urban farms to compost materials from a variety of sources. Under a new regulatory exclusion, a community garden, or any person that composts in an aggregate area no larger than 300 square feet — and only accepts yard waste, animal waste, food scraps, bulking agents and additives — is not subject to registration, licensing and other composting regulations. Waste materials can be accepted from any source and the compost produced can be used in any location allowing community gardens to share feedstocks and/or compost. In addition, compost produced is not subject to the testing requirements for commercial composting facilities.
For community gardens to fully benefit from the regulatory exclusion in the statewide composting rules, local zoning codes must also align with state requirements. However, the first step is to ensure that urban agriculture is recognized in local codes. While some Ohio cities promote urban agriculture, many Ohio jurisdictions do not specifically recognize community gardens and urban farms as a land use category. As awareness of this issue has risen in recent years, several communities are considering, or already have updated, code language concerning community gardens and urban agriculture. Establishing local zoning codes governing urban agriculture ensures plentiful locations exist for community gardens and urban farms to incorporate composting and organic waste recycling as a sustainable waste reduction and soil conservation strategy.

Zoning Code Model

Ohio EPA prepared the document, “Urban Agriculture, Composting and Zoning: A Zoning Code Model for Promoting Composting and Organic Waste Diversion Through Sustainable Urban Agriculture,” in response to various requests for guidance coordinating the state’s composting regulations and local zoning codes. The document is meant to serve as a guide for planners, zoning officials, municipalities, community groups and all urban agriculture stakeholders in developing local zoning that encourages the establishment of community gardens and composting activities in compliance with related local land use and state environmental regulations. The model code was developed by researching city codes addressing urban agriculture in Ohio and other states. Information was expanded by interviewing community extension agents and community garden leaders, and tapping the expertise of city and regional planners, zoning code administrators and zoning law experts, among others. It is a compilation of the most common requirements appearing in urban agriculture codes, and those identified by zoning officials as planned in future amendments to their codes.
Common practice and research suggests that in most cases the best approach is to add community gardens to the code as a “defined use category” and allow these gardens as “primary permitted use” within zoning districts. Composting activities would then be allowed as an “accessory use.” Accessory uses are those customarily incidental to the primary permitted use. Zoning codes generally allow certain accessory uses and structures on a property as long as they relate to the primary permitted uses and are conducted on the same property. The purpose of an accessory use provision is to permit uses that are necessary, expected or convenient in conjunction with a primary use. In this case, composting is necessary for the community garden to manage on-site waste and make compost for use in the garden. Similarly, composting bins and piles would be considered accessory structures.
Although the model code language was developed with a focus on organic waste management, it comprehensively addresses all the topics expected in such a code. Model code language is included for definitions, maintenance, development standards such as setbacks, fencing, signage, parking, water access and soil testing, accessory buildings, sales and nuisances. The document can be accessed on the Ohio EPA website at:
Angel Arroyo-Rodriguez is an Environmental Planner in the Program Development and Materials Conservation Unit of the Solid Waste Planning Districts Unit within the Division of Materials and Waste Management at Ohio EPA. Christopher Germain is an Environmental Planner in the Solid Waste Planning Districts Unit within the Division of Materials and Waste Management a Ohio EPA.

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