ZONING LAWS, BUILDING CODES, AND GREENHOUSE CONSTRUCTION – WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
by Adrian White
20 December, 2021 by
ZONING LAWS, BUILDING CODES, AND GREENHOUSE CONSTRUCTION – WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Lucija Johum

You’re ready to build a greenhouse. Plans are drawn up, you’ve chosen the perfect site to build, and you’ve also determined what accessories you’ll use to power and enhance your growing operation. You’re raring to go, so the next step seems obvious: time to start building.

But be careful: it’s a common mistake to skip a very important step that many tend to overlook, and that’s checking out the zoning laws, coding, and permits needed to build your structure. Many potential greenhouse owners may want to fly through these steps and take for granted that these covered structures probably aren’t subject to code, though this is not entirely (or always) true. Your community, city, county, and even state may have specific expectations about the details of your greenhouse: including dimensions, square footage, where it’s placed, and what it can (or cannot) be close to.

Before you even start to build, make sure your plans and where you want to put your structure will be legal and up to code. Otherwise, if you go ahead and build, you may find yourself having to change, take down, or even remove a good portion of your expensive hard work, just because a local inspector noticed that it didn’t adhere to a tiny detail. To prevent this, always double check zoning and building laws first!

DON’T SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF (TOO MUCH)

Before you feel overwhelmed, intimidated, or uncomfortable working with local government and your community to raise your structure correctly, remember that it’s all about safety. Zoning and permits are not meant to get in the way of your greenhouse goals, but to make them safe for yourself and the public. While zoning officers, building officials, or other figures in the process may require you to tweak certain details to your structure or plans, it’s also their job to ultimately help your project come safely and successfully to completion – not to stop it from happening.

Plus: thousands of greenhouses get built around the country every year, with absolutely no problem or code issue getting in their way. Remember that the odds are in your favor that you’ll be able to build it, no problem, even if you check the laws. Still, problems and roadblocks are possible – just take the important step to cover your bases first, so you save yourself a headache further down the line.

SOME BASICS BEFORE YOU BEGIN

What can you expect in terms of zoning, building codes, or even building permits for your structure? Before you jump into this complex world, what are some good things to know? How do you know what standards your type of greenhouse will need to adhere to?

Good news for hobby growers, gardeners, and backyard homesteaders: a greenhouse that is less than 120 square feet is usually considered temporary, and does not need a permit. Keep in mind that this exact statute doesn’t apply everywhere, word for word, or in the exact sense of square footage – another reason why it’s important to check in and know this. In most places however, certain square footage (on the smaller side) makes it so zoning, building permits, and building codes are not required, though not always. (Still – always check!)

If you are wanting a simple, small growing structure for your own personal use or exclusively for your operation (such as a small hoop house or gothic arch structure), you can take advantage of designating it as a production greenhouse, rather than a retail or commercial one. Production greenhouses mean that your structure will only be privately used for your home or your business, and that it is not open to the public (like retail or commercial). A production greenhouse is likely to be subject to less codes, while the latter type might need to follow stricter coding.

ZONING LAWS

One thing to take into account before building is zoning laws. While at first it may seem harmless and inconspicuous to put your greenhouse in that spot you’ve long been eyeing – whether in your backyard or on your agricultural property – who’s to know that laws prevent you from constructing there legally? This is a good reason why you should always check in first.

Zoning laws are different everywhere. Even if you look them up online, what you find in one municipality is likely to be different from what applies to your own if you live outside of that area, unless you are able to find the exact laws relating to your district on an online government or other official websitef. Even what applies to someone in a neighboring county may not apply to you in the exact same way. As such, it’s best to find out what zoning applies to your structure directly – in person or over the phone is best.

CONSERVATION ZONES AND THE ENVIRONMENT

Additionally, zoning ordinances adjacent or nearby to your area may impact what you can or cannot build, especially if what you build might have an impact on the surrounding environment. Commissions for nearby conservation and wetland areas with protective zoning standards nearby will need to be informed of your structure and its impact on the surrounding environment. They may have questions for you too, before they approve of your structure. Such as: “Will your greenhouse cause erosion or runoff into surrounding areas? How do you plan on handling that?”

You may even require an erosion permit in some areas, especially if you are building a covered structure near a wetland. This is especially important to consider before the land preparation, leveling, or foundation laying stage of construction. Protected areas will want to know how you plant to prevent any natural environmental impacts (especially runoff), and for you to obtain the proper permits beforehand.

ZONING PERMITS

Zoning becomes an especially important detail if you want to build larger greenhouses for commercial purposes. You’ll definitely need to get a zoning permit if you want to build a retail or commercial growing structure in the middle of a residential zone, for example. On the other hand, if you live in a designated agricultural zone, these areas sometimes give you free reign to build whatever you like, wherever you like – as long as it pertains to your agricultural business.

So for your very first step: check with your local or city government about what zone your greenhouse will be in. Find out if the zone will allow construction, or if it won’t. Also determine if you’ll need to get a zoning permit before you build, and apply for one. 

Again, a word of assurance: for most small- to average-sized greenhouses, you won’t have a problem with zoning at all. It’s when these systems get larger and more accessorized that you may start running into higher zoning standards, though in some cases, you won’t run into those either (everywhere is different).

BUILDING CODES

Next, you’ll have to adhere to building codes – which fortunately, for the most part, are quite few when it comes to greenhouses. Still, what related codes exist? And what makes these codes different from zoning codes? 

According to the City of Berkeley website, zoning codes pertain to how a structure will impact the surrounding community; building codes relate to how the structure will impact individuals who use it or conduct business within it. Building codes are those that are likely to deal with and enforce safety. For example: electrical hookups, structural integrity, snow load, and more.

Original nationwide greenhouse-related codes have been quite simple and few for a long time. These include standards to protect against heavy snow load and to resist wind, and have been in place for quite a while; some of these require some sort of anchoring, foundation, or other structural components to guarantee the safety of people inside. However, these basic codes have been added to quite a bit in the past decade.

Depending on where you live, having a foundation for your greenhouse may be more important than in other places, especially for the sake of structural integrity against the elements – though this also depends on the type of structure, its size, and of course, the area where you are building. Even hoop houses may require foundation in some places to be up to code, says the University of Connecticut College of Agriculture. While most may consider them temporary structures (especially if smaller in size) and thus not subject to code, other areas may require them to be securely anchored into a concrete foundation.

It always depends on the place, as codes vary from state to state, county to country. Codes in some places today may be a bit stricter regarding fire hazards, size, and covering type (glass or plastic, fire-retardant or not). Proper installation of electrical, plumbing, and heating is important to be up to code as well – sometimes requiring installation by a state-certified professional.

BUILDING PERMITS 

In continuation of building codes, building permits may be required to erect your growing structure. To quote Craig Humphrey from Greenhouse Management Magazine: “For previous greenhouse projects you may not have had to obtain a building permit. Don’t be surprised if a permit is now required. 

“Municipalities and other government entities have had to deal with budget shortfalls due to the economy. One way they have found to generate additional revenue is through the enforcement of building codes that previously had exempted construction projects like greenhouses.”

While this comment may sound a bit scary, rest assured that this isn’t the widespread case in most encounters with zoning and building officials. All the same, issues can happen, and are possible. Check first with officials in your nearby local government about construction, and determine whether or not you’ll need a permit – if so, you can start out applying for one.

MAKE THE BEST OF PLANS

In preparation for getting a permit – and even once you have already been granted one – include any drawn-up designs or plans to share with potential building officials. Make sure it’s as detailed as possible: depicting where the building will be in relation to property lines and zoning boundaries, in addition to its dimensions and exact location for where you plan on building it. In some instances, designs and plans may need to be signed off and approved by a state-approved engineer or architect, though this doesn’t apply in all areas. 

Other officials might also need to sign off on plans, such as a building official or zoning officer. If you are also hooking up electrical, heating, or plumbing (and this is included in the design), it may be required that a state-licensed professional do this work – and that this person (or persons’) name(s) is/are listed on the building permit.

Last but not least: even if you are taking down a greenhouse, you may need a permit before you remove or demolish it. This could apply, too, if you want to make any large changes or build additions to your structure. If this is the case, talk to your local zoning official about any changes you want to make to your greenhouse: whether its additions, removals, or even complete demolition if your setup.

ALWAYS CHECK BEFORE YOU BUILD

Wherever you might be planning to build a greenhouse, always do a little research, or contact your local government before breaking ground. This is important, and can apply to you even if you’re just building a tiny hoop house structure in your backyard for your personal use. It most definitely does apply to large, commercial greenhouses, especially ones that may hold retail plants and other horticultural products, while serving as a place of business between yourself and your customers.

Checking in and going through proper avenues can mean the difference between a safe, successful greenhouse project that’s completed smoothly and satisfactorily; and a construction project that must be completely scrapped and removed, no matter how expensive it was to build, just because a single code or zoning ordinance was not upheld.

Greenhouse owners can take comfort knowing that for the most part, expectations for greenhouse construction are few and reasonable. The majority of projects make it to completion without a problem, while ultimately, zoning and building officials want to see your greenhouse go up, too – just in a safe, environmentally aware way. As such, always look into the zoning, codes, and permits you need before moving ahead!

ZONING LAWS, BUILDING CODES, AND GREENHOUSE CONSTRUCTION – WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Lucija Johum 20 December, 2021
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