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Agricultural Districts Protect Farms and Farmers

Q: I’ve been hearing about agricultural districts; what are they?
A:
 An agricultural district is a legal description of farmland property that, when designated as an agricultural district, entitles the owner of the farmland to certain benefits.

Q: How can I get my farmland designated an agricultural district?
A:
 If you own agricultural land, you can apply to your county auditor to get your property designated an agricultural district. To qualify, the land must have been used exclusively for “agricultural production” for the three calendar years before the application is submitted. Also, you must have at least 10 acres of land or agricultural activities on your land must have produced an average yearly gross of at least $2,500 during the three previous years. Once land is designated an agricultural district, the designation lasts for five years. If the land lies within a municipality, or later becomes annexed, certain other requirements apply. 

Q: What is meant by "agricultural production?"
A:
 All forms of husbandry, production or growth are included in this definition, including commercial aquaculture, apiculture, animal or poultry husbandry, timber production, and the production of field crops, tobacco, fruits, vegetables, nursery stock, ornamental shrubs, trees, flowers or sod. It also includes the associated activities of processing, drying, storage and marketing these agricultural products.

Q: Can the auditor deny my application?
A:
 Yes, but if the auditor does not deny your application within 30 days of receiving it, your application will be deemed approved. If your application is denied, the auditor must notify you by certified mail; you then have 30 days to appeal that denial to the same county's court of common pleas.

Q: I have a septic system and my own drinking water well. If my farmland property is designated an agricultural district, can I avoid paying for sewer and water services that our township may someday provide?
A:
 If you do not use services such as sewer, water or electrical services that are provided by a public entity such as a township or a municipality, then that entity cannot collect money for future assessments for these services without your permission. However, if you do end up using any of these services, you may have to pay all uncollected assessments plus interest. 

Q: Urban development is encroaching on our rural land and neighbors are complaining about dust and noise from our farming activities. Will being designated an agricultural district benefit me if a neighbor sues me?
A:
 Yes. Being designated an agricultural district gives you an affirmative defense in a private nuisance action. What this means is that, even if a private party sues you for a being a nuisance (odors, dust, noise, etc.), and even if you are found by a court to be causing a nuisance, you will not be liable for any damages caused by the nuisance as long as you can prove the four essential elements of your affirmative defense.

Q: If my farmland is designated an agricultural district, can the land be taken away from me by eminent domain, e.g., for use as a highway?
A:
 It depends on whether the Director of the Department of Agriculture (ODA) determines that farming interests outweigh the public's interest in your land.  Any public entity seeking to take your land (e.g., the Ohio Department of Transportation - ODOT) must first inform the ODA. If ODA finds that the needs of agriculture outweigh the public's need to take your land, ODA will notify the governor. The governor will then issue a notice delaying the taking of your land for at least another 60 days, during which time the director will conduct a public hearing.  At the conclusion of the hearing, ODA will issue its final recommendation on what should be done with your property. Even if your land is to be taken, no more than 10 acres or 10 percent of your land can be the subject of an eminent domain proceeding, and no public entity can advance or distribute public monies to take your land until ODA issues its recommendation. Keep in mind, however, that if the taking is for the placement of natural gas, synthetic gas, oil, electricity or telephone lines on or over your property, then your property can be taken without ODA’s involvement.

Q: Can I still sell my land if it is designated an agricultural district?
A:
 Yes, although certain penalties may apply in certain instances depending on who the buyer is and how the property is to be used in the future. However, you would not be penalized if, for example, you decide to sell any part of the property to an immediate family member (not an in-law) for the purpose of constructing a dwelling in which the family member will reside for at least three years.

1/28/2014

This "Law You Can Use" consumer legal information column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA). It was prepared by David G. Cox, who practices agricultural and environmental law and is of counsel with the Columbus firm of Lane, Alton & Horst LLC. 

Articles appearing in this column are intended to provide broad, general information about the law. Before applying this information to a specific legal problem, readers are urged to seek advice from an attorney.

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