May 07, 2014 - Forty years ago the number of chickens allowed per acre in Brandon Township would more than likely not have been an issue.
"Right now it's one chicken for two- and-a-half acres of property for land owners in Brandon Township—that may increase to about 15 birds for the same area," said Bill Dinnan, Brandon Township building and planning director. "Over the next few months we'll start to take a new look at the ordinance."
A shift in demographics prompting urban dwellers to relocate into rural communities—like Atlas, Brandon and Groveland townships over the half century has spawned a set of issues, including the mixing of dissimilar living environments.
The melting of city folks migrating to country living prompted the creation in 1981 of the Right to Farm Act. According to the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) the act takes aim at protecting commercial farms during a time when disliked conditions such as chicken crowing and animal smells associated to farms were threatened by nuisance lawsuits. , The Right to Farm Act protects the farmers operation through the guidelines of Generally Accepted Agricultural and Management Practices (GAAMP) as defined by the state.
But in recent years, agriculture officials have said, suburban and urban farmers have increasingly argued that Right to Farm protects their rural lifestyle from neighbors who object to their chickens, horses or goats. Those arguments have een successful, in part, because GAAMP does not define a threshold or level of commercial activity that would make a farm eligible for protection under the law.
Now that's changed.
The changes to GAAMP approved last month by the MDARD now specify that any number of farm animals raised in neighborhoods with more than 13 homes within 1/8 of a mile of the animals, or with any home within 20 feet of the proposed facility, will not be in compliance with the generally accepted practices that are the basis of state protection. If the site is determined to fall uder these guidelines, and local zoning doesn't allow agriculture as a use by right,than it is not considered an area acceptable for a livestock facility.
Atlas Township already has zoning ordinances that specify guidelines for livestock.
"Agricultural use is not permitted under the new guidelines from GAAMP unless the indiviual community has a local zoning authority that provides for such use," said Rick Misek, Atlas Township planning commission director. "We could, under the new guidelines, permit agricultural use in high density areas if we were so inclined. But we do not. As a township we have struggled hard within the last few decades to stay the course wit regard to agricultureal use--that's the beauty of Atlas Township. It's a wonderful place to be in harmony with agriculture."
Misek said that township residents are essentially not impacted by the GAAMP changes.
"The township already regulates the minimum lot size for horses or other animals to five acres," he said. The ordinance was rewritten in 2006 making it substantially more user friendly for the recreational keeping of farm animals. Article four of the zoning ordinance defines permitted livestock by the township."
Misek said the GAAMP changes take aim at city and villages that don't have agricultural ordinances.
"Actually we have more agricultural ordinances and more restrictive than the City of Flint," he added.
Groveland Township Supervisor Bob DePalma said the planning commission will review the new GAAMP guidelines.
"It's a huge improvement," said DePalma. "It's long overdue. The GAAMP changes allow communities to decide their own development with regard to agriculture. At times individuals hid behind the Right to Farm Act—it does mean you can do what ever you want—it does not make you a farmer if you own a cow or a sheep. For some people farming is just a hobby, they owned a pig or cow and that's where the complaints came from. The township supervisors do all we can to protect legitimate farmers."
"The changes (to GAAMP) clarify those situations when decisions regarding the keeping of farm animals in primarily residential areas should be made by local communities and their boards," he added.
Similarly, Brandon Township has several areas where the changes to GAAMP may impact current residents.
"It's going to be a case-by-case situation," said Dinnan. "Just about every property owner is going to be different. If the site is determined to fall under these guidelines, and zoning doesn't allow agriculture as a use by right, then it is not considered an area acceptable for a livestock facility. However, the new guidelines will be discussed over the next two months at the planning commission."