Room to Grow: Detroit Takes the First Steps to Legalize Urban Agriculture

Posted on February 8, 2013 in Administrative Law, Environmental Law | Comments Off

Detroit is moving closer to legalizing urban agriculture within its city limits. Though there are as many as 355 urban farms and gardens in Detroit[i], they remain illegal due to current zoning rules and the city’s concern over the Michigan’s Right to Farm Act[ii].

After losing more than a quarter of its population between 2010 and 2012[iii], Detroit has more than 200,000 vacant tracts that generate no significant tax revenue and cost money to maintain[iv]. The city has more vacant land than almost any other U.S. city[v] — an estimated 25[vi] to 40[vii] percent of the city’s 139 square miles. This vacant land often “blighted” with abandoned buildings and high unemployment and crime rates[viii]. On the other hand, urban agriculture can improve a neighborhood’s economic prosperity, health and safety, create a sense of community, and remove blight from the city’s vacant lots.[ix] As a result, Detroit Mayor David Bing has looked to urban farming to get the land off the city’s budget and into productive use[x].

One of the issues with urban farming in Detroit is that Michigan’s Right to Farm Act (RTFA) protects farmers from nuisance claims by providing that any farm that follows the state’s “Generally Accepted Agricultural Management Practices” is per se not a nuisance[xi]. Originally adopted in 1981, the RTFA meant to protect farms in rural areas from urban encroachment by preempting local laws, including zoning regulations[xii]. Under the RTFA, cities have been wary of permitting commercial agriculture because they would not be able to control issues like odors and traffic[xiii].

However, in January 2012, Michigan’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development exempted cities with a population over 100,000 “in which a zoning ordinance has been enacted to allow for agriculture.”[xiv] In addition to Detroit, this would exempt Ann Arbor, Flint, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Sterling Heights, and Warren.[xv]

Detroit’s City Planning Commission responded by drafting an ordinance to allow urban agriculture. The draft Urban Agriculture Ordinance, dated September 12, 2012, is expected to go before the Detroit City Council in January 2013[xvi]. City planners realize they will need to revisit the ordinance, if passed, in the future[xvii]. For instance, the ordinance does not currently allow animal agriculture, but the city would eventually like to allow for chickens, rabbits, and bees, which people are currently raising in the city anyway[xviii]. While it may not be perfect, passing the current ordinance is a vital step to legitimizing urban agriculture in Detroit.

At this time, the draft Urban Agriculture Ordinance puts no size limits or minimums on commercial and non-commercial plots[xix]. It also allows for sales from farmers markets and on-site farm stands, and directly to public or private entities, retail or wholesale[xx]. In addition, the draft ordinance states the operations “shall not be detrimental to the physical environment or to public health and general welfare by reason of excessive production of noise, smoke, fumes, glare, vibrations, or odors,” thus creating the grounds for nuisance claims[xxi]. The ordinance also creates an Agriculture Review Committee to “review and investigate” the site plans for proposed developments of two acres and above[xxii].

With many large-scale agricultural projects poised to break ground in Detroit[xxiii], the draft ordinance will not solve all of the city’s agricultural problems. The city must still consider how it sees itself growing in the future, including maintaining the momentum of urban agriculture[xxiv], planning for future economic development[xxv], and avoiding large “land grabs” by developers looking to capitalize on higher property values[xxvi]. However, these issues cannot even begin to be dealt with until the city council legalizes urban agriculture in Detroit.

- Kevin Petersen is a General Member of MJEAL. He can be reached at kevinjp@umich.edu.


[i] Melanie J. Duda, Note, Growing in the D: Revising Current Laws to Promote a Model of Sustainable City Agriculture, 89 U. Det. Mercy L. Rev. 181, 184-85 (2011-2012).

[ii] Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. § § 286.471-474 (West, Westlaw through 2012 Sess.).

[iii] Population of Michigan Cities and Villages: 2000 and 2010, Mich. Ctr. for Geographic Info., http://www.michigan.gov/cgi/0,4548,7-158-54534-252541–,00.html (last visited Nov. 19, 2012).

[iv] Matthew Dolan, New Detroit farm plan taking root, Wall St. J. (July 6, 2012) http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304898704577479090390757800.html#articleTabs%3Darticle.

[v] Brian Widdis et al., Motor City Vacancy (Interactive Graphic), Wall St. J. (July 6, 2012), http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304898704577479090390757800.html#articleTabs%3Dinteractive.

[vi] Benjamin M. Muth, An Urban Agriculture Permit System for Detroit’s Vacant Land, 30 Mich. Env. L.J. No. 2, p.18 (2012), available at http://www.michbar.org/environmental/pdfs/winter2012.pdf#page=18.

[vii] Widdis, supra note 5.

[viii] Muth, supra note 6.

[ix] John E. Mogk, Sarah K. Wiatkowski & Mary J. Weindorf, Promoting Urban Agriculture as an Alternative Land Use for Vacant Properties in the City of Detroit: Benefits, Problems and Proposals for a Regulatory Framework for Successful Land Use Integration, 56 Wayne L. Rev. 1521, 1530 (2010).

[x] Yevgeny Shrago, Urban Farming to a Better Detroit, Harv. L. & Pol’y Rev. Blog. (April 6. 2011), http://hlpronline.com/2011/04/urban-farming-to-a-better-detroit/; see also John Gallagher, Urban farms, gardens, reforestation all part of Detroit Works vision for remaking city, Detroit Free Press (May 8, 2012), http://www.freep.com/article/20120508/BUSINESS06/205080378/Bing-team-is-closing-in-on-Detroit-Works-plan.

[xi] MCLA § 286.473 (West, Westlaw through 2012 Sess.); See also Muth, supra note 6, at 22.

[xii] See Patricia Norris, Gary Taylor & Mark Wyckoff, When Urban Agriculture Meets Michigan’s Right to Farm Act: The Pig’s in the Parlor, 2011 Mich. St. L. Rev. 365 (2011)

[xiii] Dawson Bell, State move to help Detroit, other cities with urban farming, Detroit Free Press (Dec. 15, 2011), http://www.freep.com/article/20111215/NEWS06/112150507/State-move-to-help-Detroit-other-cities-with-urban-farming.

[xiv] Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Generally Accepted Agricultural and Management Practices for Site Selection and Odor Control for New and Expanding Livestock Production Facilities (January 2012), http://www.michigan.gov/documents/mdard/2012_FINAL_SITE_SELECTION_GAAMP_378548_7.pdf.

[xv] Population of Michigan Cities and Villages, supra note 3.

[xvi] John Gallagher, Large-scale farming projects might be under way by next spring, Detroit Free Press (Oct. 8, 2012), http://www.freep.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2012310080076.

[xvii] Id.

[xviii] Id.

[xix] Draft Urban Agriculture Ordinance (September 12, 2012), Detroit City Planning Comm’n, at 3, available at http://www.detroitmi.gov/Portals/0/docs/legislative/cpc/pdf/Urban_Ag_Draft_Ordinance_12Sept12.pdf.

[xx] Id. at 7.

[xxi] Id. at 9.

[xxii] Id. at 12.

[xxiii] At least three large-scale projects have been proposed in the city, including Michigan State University’s proposed 100-acre “MetroFoodPlus Innovation Cluster @ Detroit” (http://www.msumetrofood.com/), the proposed 175-acre Hantz Farms (http://www.hantzfarmsdetroit.com/), and the proposed 20-acre RecoveryPark (http://recoverypark.org/). See also Gallagher, supra note 15.

[xxiv] Dana May Christensen, Securing the Momentum: Could a Homestead Act Help Sustain Detroit Urban Agriculture?, 16 Drake J. Agric. L. 241 (2011).

[xxv] Muth, supra note 6.

[xxvi] See Eric Holt Giminez, Detroit: A Tale of Two… Farms?, Huffington Post (July 10, 2012), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/eric-holt-gimenez/a-tale-of-two-farms_b_1660019.html.