Zoning for Agricultural Enterprises – Shelburne
The Champlain Valley town of Shelburne, VT remained a primarily agricultural town, with its population limited by available agricultural land, until the 1940s. As Burlington emerged as a regional center, Shelburne’s growth became less tied to its original agricultural activities, and between 1940 and 2010, the population grew from 1,365 to 7,144 residents. The town continued to value its agricultural heritage, and so sought ways to support agriculture by limiting development on agricultural soils and promoting farm enterprises.
Many municipalities want to promote businesses that harness Vermont’s agricultural heritage, while ensuring that the “commercial” doesn’t unintentionally overwhelm the “agricultural.” The Town of Shelburne faced this question in the mid-2000s, when Shelburne Vineyard applied to develop a building for wine tastings and tours next to a vineyard.
Instead of a rezoning the area as a commercial district – which could have led to overly intensive commercial development in an area not planned for such development – the Planning Commission developed a new use, “integrated agriculture,” which (after 2009) is only allowed in the rural district, as a conditional use. It is defined in the zoning bylaw as:
Hybrid land use and development incidental and directly related to the principal farming activity being conducted on-site excluding the slaughter of livestock or poultry and consisting of the following “Primary Integrated Agricultural Activities:”
- The on-site preparation and processing of crops or produce not principally produced on the farm;
- The storage and sale of crops or produce not principally produced on the farm or the resulting products from such crops or produce;
- The sampling and tasting of crops and produce not principally produced on the farm or the resulting products from such crops or produce; and/or
- Tours of growing areas and storage and processing facilities.
This definition covers farm-related activities like the processing of foods not produced on the farm, and the sale of products produced on or off the farm. If these activities account for the majority (at least 2/3) of the business’s revenue, the business can also engage in “secondary integrated agricultural activities” – the sale of non-farm products, and the hosting of educational and cultural events related to farming.
Shelburne reviews integrated agriculture uses with specific conditional use standards, requires site plan review, and even has its own sign standards. The town is allowed to regulate these “incidental and directly related” farm uses because they do not fall under the Accepted Agricultural Practices (AAPs are exempt from municipal regulation). The specific review criteria help uphold the rural district’s purpose, which is “to maintain and enhance open spaces, and to protect agricultural lands, soil, water and other scenic and natural resources.”
The “integrated agriculture” definition, and its review standards, carefully link the commercial activity to the agricultural enterprise. This helps maintain a working, rural landscape, while allowing Shelburne to manage new impacts resulting from farm diversification. As interest in on-farm enterprises increases, approaches like this can help manage impacts while promoting “agripreneurism.”
- Since being added to the zoning bylaw, there have been few applications for “integrated agriculture” as a use. Nevertheless, having this in place sets Shelburne up for the future.
- By linking commercial activity to the farm’s agricultural activity, towns can help keep development at an appropriate scale, especially in areas that are more traditionally rural.
- The Town of Shelburne received widespread support for adding this use to their zoning bylaw. However, because farming is exempted from most municipal regulation in Vermont, there is sometimes a perception that farm activity can’t (or shouldn’t) be regulated. Town officials may need to educate applicants and community members about this category of use for it to be effective.
- Revenue criteria (tracking how much is earned by activity) can be time consuming to enforce, especially as integrated agriculture uses proliferate.
- Farms may diversify incrementally, and most towns are still developing tools that address potential impacts. Towns may find it challenging to retroactively require diversified agricultural enterprises to acquire permits once they have diversified, and when developing the tool should consider how they will address this.