It's been over a week since we got the letter from the town zoning office informing us that in order to keep "farm animals" we were required by zoning ordinances to have 10 acres of land. As we do not have 10 acres, this is a problem. The zoning guy helpfully copied out and highlighted the sections of the rule book that we were in violation of.
That was last Monday night. Tuesday I wrote a brief letter thanking him for his letter and letting him know we would be re-homing our sheep. Although the letter had made no mention of a timeframe, I asked for the town's patience as we worked through the situation. We spent most of the week in the deeps of misery, neither of us having much appetite (in our case, not necessarily a bad thing), but thankfully at least able to sleep.
We talked to various people, from Geri, the neighbor who loves our sheep (she plays bridge with a guy who raises sheep, and I wanted his phone number), to the owners of the restaurant we frequent who have a horse farm, to some folks we met online who used to live in Ransomville but moved out so they could have a larger farm to raise dairy goats and other critters. Geri has lived here for 30 years and said "don't panic, the town never does anything much about zoning complaints, and they can't expect you to move your animals out in a couple weeks." Her next door neighbor has 18 acres covered with old junked vehicles and piles of tires, and a complaint to the town about that situation resulted in exactly nothing.
The folks who raise dairy goats (certified by NY to sell raw goat and cow milk!) said they know the zoning guy and what he told us can't be right. They lived on 6-6.5 acres in Ransomville and they had their little farm, but they weren't farming for a living. The legal definition used by the zoning ordinance for a farm is an entity operated primarily for gain. Further, the ordinance states that to have a farm (legal definition) you must have 10 acres. As they weren't taking the farm tax exemption and weren't operating as a business, they were told that it was no problem to do what they were doing.
Anyway, this morning I went and talked to the zoning guy, Larry, and he is a very nice man who is sympathetic to our situation. He said he does not go around hassling people about zoning, that the rules are a bit vague, that the way he reads them, we should not have the animals, but he admitted that a lawyer might very well read them differently. He doesn't think that not running a farm as a business necessarily negates the 10 acre rule, but he said he could be wrong. He would tend to err on the side of caution. But he does not go around looking for zoning violations and would not have bothered us except that within about a week's time he got 4-5 complaints (!). I was shocked at that because I only know of ONE person who has not been happy lately, but his wife enjoys the sheep and said "everything bothers Richard", so I didn't take it too seriously. I figured when the letter came that he was probably the one who complained. But 3-4 other people? Who? And WHY didn't they come to us first? Larry said that most of the time when people call him, they won't even tell HIM their name - they just want to register a complaint. He said that people should have the guts to come to us first, but they don't. I told him that we would sell off most of our stock, but we would like to keep a small number if possible.
The complaints seemed to center around noise, and our "manure" piles. We have two particularly noisy demanding ewes (see post below for the story on one of them), and before we got even got the letter we had actually pulled them into the barn because they were so bad. I knew that sort of thing could be annoying, and we didn't want to upset anyone (too late!). In fact, we had already decided to sell them because we don't want noisy animals around either. The other thing about the manure piles was both confusing and somewhat amusing. We had cleaned out the pen inside the barn three times. The first time was a few months ago and that we put at the back end of the garden so it could compost. The last two times we put them in between the back of our house and the barn. They were perhaps 2.5 feet high at the center, and maybe six feet in diameter, and were composed mostly of straw and hay, with sheep poop and urine mixed in of course. But they were not smelly and were not even really visible unless you were looking for them. I intended to use them for planting some pumpkins, but yesterday we weeded out the flower beds all around the house and used them as mulch. Presto! No more manure piles! Only the one in the garden is left and that will be spread out in the next day or so.
So, Larry basically said that as we planned to cut down on our sheep numbers and had taken care of the piles, he was not going to do anything more unless and until he gets further complaints. At that point he will let them know the steps we are taking and see how things go. I got the impression that he thinks people are over-reacting and he thinks we are good people and should not have to worry about this. However, if it comes down to it, we may have to sell everything off, unless we want to get a lawyer and fight it.
And back to our goat-raising friends - if you read the zoning ordinances, the part about farms is written the same way for both our "semi-rural residential" and the "rural residential" zone where they used to live and which comprises most of the township. So, no matter what part of the town you are in, if farms are permitted, they are all subject to the same 10 acre minimum. The reason, he said, they were allowed to have their animals was because they happened to live somewhere with nobody around that complained. So they were allowed to do what they wanted to do, not because the rules permitted it, but because no one minded. That essentially means that the rules are useless, and arbitrary.
If this has taught us anything, it's that you should not rely on reading the zoning ordinances, but actually talk to a zoning official to see what the interpretation of those ordinances are. Also, we've realized that to really do what we want to do in terms of raising sheep (or anything else), we need to be in a true farming community. Our town makes noises about encouraging agricultural uses of land, but they limit people to needing 10 acres to do anything. If you buy 9.9 acres of land, you are still technically in violation if you have anything considered a "farm animal" (which includes poultry) on your property, and if someone wanted to make a stink about it and make your life miserable, they could.
So, we are slowly making plans to move out of here. We don't know when or to where, but this is probably not the right place for us in the long term. We just have to search for the right opportunity and trust that God will take care of us, as He always has.