Today’s urban homesteader can’t just raise food with wild abandon. Not if they want to coexist with neighbors. Being a successful urban homesteader involves researching laws first; it’s a lot easier than fixing a problem once it’s reported.
It was a tragic night in Sparks, Nevada. An elderly gentleman kept a small flock of chickens in his backyard. Until a drunk driver slammed through his fence. Police were called, the driver arrested. The man’s chickens escaped, were discovered, and were reported. He had to rebuild a fence and surrender all his birds.
Chickens are legal within Reno, so residents of its sister city believed they could also keep them. But backyard agriculture has been illegal in Sparks since the 70s. No poultry, no beehives, no community gardens. “Underground” chicken owners operated by the good grace or ignorance of their neighbors. If city officials discovered even one hen, residents had to rehome it within a week.
And Sparks isn’t the only municipality restricting backyard agriculture.
Whether you’re a new urban homesteader or expanding from gardening to poultry, research local laws. It’s easier to know them, and comply by growing/raising what is allowed, than to fall in love with your Buff Orpington then have animal control take her away.
1. Small Livestock Laws
Whether you can keep ducks, or roosters, or even a couple hens, depends on your city.
The Saga of the Sparks Chickens has a happy ending. After hearing about the elderly gentleman, Pawl Hollis of Sparks’ biggest garden center got to work. He and other members of the community urged city council to reconsider laws. It was working for Reno, building a stronger community, so why couldn’t it work for Sparks?
October of 2015, Sparks legalized chickens, but with restrictions. No roosters, no slaughtering in city limits, no more than 16 hens. The city legalized beehives, limiting size and number of hives per parcel. New laws even specified humane environments for hens and bees.
Just across the river, Reno only mandates that livestock cannot be neglected or be a nuisance. That leaves a lot of room for interpretation. I can keep roosters, goats, pigs, rabbits, even a sheep or two…as long as they are cared for and my neighbors are okay with it. But if my tom turkey won’t shut up, and my neighbor calls animal control, I must get rid of him.
Laws don’t stop with chickens and goats. I have a manmade pond in my backyard and, after rehoming my ducks, turned it into a permaculture habitat. I threw in some water hyacinth and purchased fish and tadpoles. Chickens would eat the hyacinth, which would shade the fish, which would poo in the water, which would fertilize my garden. But tilapia requires $550/year for a commercial license. Channel catfish are perfectly legal and just as tasty.
Is owning chickens or other small livestock forbidden in your location? Cities are circling back to urban agriculture, acknowledging that it builds communities and allows people to focus on their own prosperity. Keep writing to local governments. Rally community support.
2. Selling Food
After urban homesteaders successfully feed their families from little plots of land, the next step may be feeding others. But that, too, comes with laws.
Selling homemade food can be tricky. New cottage food laws allow the sale of items made within home kitchens, but details vary by state. All restrict certain foods, avoiding items that can poison consumers. California allows selling to restaurants but children cannot help cook. South Dakota only allows $5,000 in annual sales and Wisconsin allows the sale of jellies but not baked goods. To research specific cottage food laws in your state, check out Forrager.com or call your county health department.
Can you sell eggs and vegetables? Those are safer than homemade kombucha, right? Most states don’t require permits to sell uncut, unaltered produce. But some communities prevent you from doing it from your front yard, over the internet, or outside a farmer’s market. Colorado only allows the sale of whole eggs under certain conditions, such as labeling and temperature requirements.
3. And Buying It
Good cheese-making needs good milk. But enjoying raw milk benefits can land someone else in serious trouble. Raw milk sales aren’t legal everywhere. In some states, like Idaho, you can purchase it in retail stores. But Nevada laws are so stringent that all dairies just pasteurize their products. Small-scale farmers and urban homesteaders in Nevada can’t even give it away; milk exchanged for pet use must be adulterated with charcoal or dye. Carrying raw milk across state lines is illegal. Arranging to acquire illicit milk won’t harm you but the animals’ owners could suffer consequences.
4. Dealing with Nuisance Animals
If raccoons kill your chickens or squirrels eat your garden, what can you do about it? And how about the neighbor’s dog?
Being an urban homesteader means growing food that someone else wants to eat. That “someone” could be songbirds plucking out sunflower seeds or coyotes making quick work of domestic poultry. But each city and county have their own set of laws regarding nuisance animals.
For instance, within my county, I’m allowed to bait or trap raccoons and ground squirrels. But here’s the catch: If I do trap, I must euthanize. It’s illegal to release these animals into other areas. But cottontail rabbits are protected as game animals. I cannot bait, kill, or even catch them without special licenses. I may only fence them out or use repellants. Similar rules apply to birds. If my neighbor poisons Eurasian collared doves, he’s not breaking the law … unless he also kills a songbird in the process.
Laws regarding at-large animals can be tricky, too. Where I grew up, in rural Idaho, it was well known that your dog might get shot if it terrorized another rancher’s animals. We accepted this and kept our dogs locked up. But in cities, you may be able to do nothing but contact local animal control. Some areas don’t even require animal owners to keep their pets locked up.
And on an even more somber note: What are an urban homesteader’s rights if her chickens get into a neighbor’s yard? Is that neighbor responsible for returning the animal or paying for its replacement? It helps to research laws and print them for reference before this happens.
5. City Codes and Gardening
So, you want to grow food on your property? The city can tell you exactly how to do it.
Enclosed black plastic composters are popular with urban homesteaders because they break down waste faster. They’re also allowed in areas where compost piles may be outlawed. The concept of urban homesteading is so new that many cities still follow old laws to keep an urban aesthetic, banning the traditional pile. If open composting isn’t legal, research how to make your own barrel.
Other city codes may specify what type of fence you can have, what you do with that grassy strip between the sidewalk and street, the height of plants, whether your garden can overhang into a neighbor’s yard, and whether edibles are permitted out front.
In Toronto, Canada, the Oliveira family hoped to teach sustainability to their children by planting a vegetable garden in the front yard. The children and even the neighbors seemed to love the tomatoes, lettuce, and corn. But somebody complained. The family received a letter from the city, demanding they uproot the garden and replace it with sod. Grasses and flowers were legal but not vegetables. After newspapers and media shared the story, and support poured in from all over the world, Toronto rewrote city ordinances to include cared-for vegetables.
Is it legal for cities to tell you what you can grow in your front yard? Absolutely. Some say plants must be ornamental, which means you could grow scarlet runner beans or decorative kale. Others insist on specific planter boxes or landscaping. If your city doesn’t allow vegetables in the only parts of your land that receive sunlight, research how others have influenced codes. Or research “ornamental” plants which are also edible, such as nasturtiums or orach.
6. Rain Water Catchment
This one’s tough. And though some cities have loosened laws in response to drought, others have tightened them. Homeowners often purchase camouflaged rain barrels in attempts to skirt the law. And though some cities aren’t sending officials to see where gutters end, others impose harsh fines if catchment is discovered.
In some cities, rain water harvesting is illegal but diversion isn’t. You can run gutter pipes wherever you want, as long as water eventually flows onto the ground. Rain gardens take advantage of the diversion loophole. By gauging yearly rainfall and arranging appropriate plants beneath gutters, urban homesteaders harness Mother Nature’s moisture without breaking laws.
7. What You Can and Can’t Grow
Even unintentionally growing the wrong thing can be illegal.
Many cities and counties ban invasive weeds. Some, such as puncturevine and Russian knapweed, are so invasive that you are legally required to remove them from your property. Using goats or machinery to remove these weeds can avoid county-applied herbicides.
Some areas ban certain trees which are invasive, prone to breakage, or which necessitate more street cleanup.
Some “noxious weeds” are also good for you and are very popular with gardeners. But will you get fined if someone discovers your golden bamboo in New York state or mustard in Michigan? Research which weeds are considered “noxious” in your area and grow nutritious alternatives.
Let’s talk about other things you can’t grow. Controlled substances are one. A green, herbal plant has recently been in the news as more states legalize it, but obtain the right permits before you cultivate your own. And did you know that growing certain poppies violate federal law?
It’s time for some good news. Cities may reward urban homesteaders for growing certain plants. Drought-stricken or desert cities often give recognition to homeowners employing drought-tolerant plants and methods. And some, such as San Diego, cut property taxes for parcels which include urban farms or community gardens.
8. Building Codes
Greenhouses extend growing seasons. Sheds and chicken coops protect your tools and poultry. But be sure they’re legal.
City codes may specify that you obtain building permits unless the structure is within certain dimensions. In Reno, that’s smaller than 10×10 and either temporary or portable. So, those 8×10 sheds located in hardware store parking lots would be legal. Building a 10×12 garden shed with a foundation requires a permit.
I have an acquaintance who battled his next-door neighbor. She constantly called the city to report his 20×20 greenhouse-in-progress. On Facebook, he complained about her, uploaded the next chapter in the saga of hateful neighbors, paid fines, and waited for the storm to calm before he built again. Repeat. But a building permit was less than $200 … and also less than the fines he eventually had to pay.
Though I have both chicken coop and greenhouse, I stay within laws and avoid purchasing permits two ways: My chicken coop is 4×8 and can be disassembled within an hour using a wrench and screwdriver. The greenhouse is seasonal; March through May, 6mil plastic stretches over framework and plants nestle inside. It’s simply a 10×10 frame for a picnic pavilion the rest of the year.
Some communities don’t stop with requiring permits; you also need to comply with height and size limits, styles or must paint the structures specific colors.
If you’re an urban homesteader with amazing coop dreams, look into obtaining permits. These require cash and an inspection but avoid fines or tattling neighbors. Or compromise with smaller structures.
What Other Laws Should Urban Homesteaders Consider?
Noise ordinances can apply to machinery like leaf blowers. Some cities prohibit burning garden waste. Allowing debris to pile up, even if you intend to use it for building another planter box, can earn a fine. Some areas limit days on which you can water, necessitating water-saving methods such as mulch. You may be unable to do something about neighbors’ trees which shade your gardens, but you can if fragile trees drop dangerous branches onto your property. Then there’s liability for any injuries which happen when you allow friends to check out your pocket of urban sustainability.
What about HOAs?
Sorry, but homeowners’ associations and CC&Rs add to municipal laws. Chickens may be legal within Reno, but residents of newer, planned communities are still banned from keeping them. The same goes with gardens in the front yard. Or even putting up a cute scarecrow. Though HOAs cannot legalize something that the city has prohibited, they are allowed to prohibit something you’re allowed to have in other neighborhoods.
Don’t Despair. Prepare!
These laws wouldn’t be in place if someone hadn’t let chicken coops become stinky nuisances, poisoned customers with homemade ceviche, or built an elaborate shed which then collapsed on some else. It is possible to work within local regulations and still be a successful urban homesteader.
If you can’t keep goats or purchase raw milk, you may be unable to make the best raw cheeses; purchase pasteurized milk and good cheese from retailers. And if you can’t keep chickens, purchase good eggs while writing to your local city council. Trade with other homesteaders living outside city limits. Even crafters living in high-rise apartments can sew clothing, can jellies, and garden in balcony containers.
Are you an urban homesteader who had to work around city laws? Please tell us your experiences.
|Law||Restrictions||Suggestions for Urban Homesteaders|
|Small Livestock||Certain breeds, genders, or quantities are forbidden.||Appeal to local lawmakers. Keep allowed animals or purchase eggs and meat from homesteaders outside city limits.|
|Cottage Food||Certain foods are prohibited, as are certain venues or income levels.||Operate within state cottage food laws or apply
for a food handler’s license.
|Raw Milk||Exchange/sale is forbidden in some
|Learn how to make cheeses and yogurt with pasteurized
milk and safe dairy cultures.
|Nuisance Animals||Some animals can be trapped; others must be left alone.||Good fencing is a legal way to deal with all bird,
mammal, and human trespassers.
|Aesthetic Codes||Vegetable gardening may be illegal
in front yards or may have height
|Appeal to local lawmakers. Research ornamental plants
which are also edible. Create attractive planter boxes.
|Compost Piles||Open piles may not be permitted.||Purchase or build enclosed composting tumblers.|
|Rain Barrels||Certain cities prohibit catching rain water.||Incorporate rain gardens, arranging plants beneath gutters and pipes to take advantage of rainfall.|
|Noxious Weeds||Homeowners cannot grow certain weeds, even accidentally, on a property.||To avoid pesticides or city fines, use organic techniques
such as goats, manual removal, or hot water to kill weeds.
|Building Codes||Structures over a certain size require
permits and inspections.
|Better safe than sorry. Either limit structure size or apply
for permits to ensure projects are safe.
|Prohibited Species||Controlled substances, noxious or invasive plants or animals may be banned.||Research what is illegal. Find legal and safe alternatives.|
|HOAs & CC&Rs||Chickens may be legal in the city but
planned communities prohibit them.
|Communities are allowed to make rules which add onto
city codes. If the HOA prohibits them, they’re prohibited.
Appeal to the HOA’s leadership to change rules.
|Liability||Homeowners are responsible for injuries incurred by others on property.||Consider obtaining insurance policies, or asking visitors to sign waivers, before allowing farm tours.|