Zoning For Horse Farms In Maryland
Updated: Sep 22, 2020
What are the zoning restrictions for horse farms in Maryland? This is one of the most frequently asked questions I get as a real estate agent specializing in homes and farms. The answer really depends on where you are looking to buy. Zoning ordinances do change from time to time so I won’t be posting a breakdown of every zoning law regarding horses in each county, but never fear! There are some simple ways to figure out what is permitted in each county.
County Ordinances. Zoning ordinances in Maryland are county specific and, believe it or not, many residentially zoned areas do list agriculture as a permitted use. In some cases, agriculture is a permitted use with conditions. Many counties will require that a property have at least 3 acres in order to accommodate horses and some have limitations on how many horses you can keep per acre. The easiest way to figure out what is allowed on a particular property is to go online, find the county zoning map, and figure out how the property is zoned. From there, you can look up the county zoning ordinance and read about the permitted uses for that zoning designation. It is also important to look up the county’s definition of agriculture in the ordinance to make sure it includes keeping, boarding, and/or breeding horses. When in doubt, call the county.
Do not trust the property listing to give you the zoning. In many instances, agents do not look up the zoning and allow the MLS to pull the use from the state database. The current use may not match the zoning. For example, a property could be zoned Agricultural, but the current use is residential. In many cases, the system will label such a property residentially zoned when it is, in fact, zoned Agricultural.
What If Horses Are Not Allowed? If a property is zoned in such a way that does not allow for horses, it is possible to obtain a zoning variance or special exception from the county. Keep in mind that you stand a better chance if the property nearly meets the requirements. For instance, if a property is 2.8 acres and you are in a county that requires at least 3 acres to keep horses, you may be able to get the county to issue a special exception. It helps to have a plan for the number of horses you plan to keep, how the outbuildings will be situated (they need to be a certain distance from property lines and neighbors), and how waste will be managed.
Many buyers want to know if it is possible to get a variance prior to purchasing a property. Yes, it is possible. In fact, I am currently working on such a transaction. However, it can be tricky for a number of reasons. The process often takes months and most sellers aren’t willing or able to accept a contract with a variance contingency. It would mean taking the property off the market for months with the possibility of the sale ultimately falling through—a risk most sellers aren’t willing to take. The seller will also need to participate in the variance process either by signing off on all documentation or by signing off on allowing the buyer to represent the property before the county board.
Variances and special exceptions already in place do not necessarily convey to buyers. Occasionally, I come across farms described as “grandfathered into” a zone that does not allow landowners to keep horses. It is important to remember that just because a seller has horses due to a variance or special exception, doesn’t mean the buyer will be able to keep horses too. A buyer will have to apply for a new variance.