Agricultural Protection Overlay District


What is it?

Overlay zoning is a regulatory tool that creates a special zoning district, placed over an existing base zone(s), which identifies special provisions in addition to those in the underlying base zone.

The overlay district can share common boundaries with the base zone or cut across base zone boundaries. Regulations or incentives are attached to the overlay district to protect a specific resource or guide development within a special area.  An Agricultural Protection Overlay District is one way to help protect agricultural resources in a community.

There are three basic steps to creating an Agricultural Protection Overlay District: defining the purpose of the district; identifying the area of the district; and developing specific rules that only apply to the district.

The purpose of Agricultural Protection Overlay Districts are often: 1) To promote agricultural land uses and activities and other uses and activities, which act in direct support of agriculture; 2) To minimize conflicting land uses detrimental to agriculture, limiting development, and; 3) to improve food security and provide for fresh local farm products for the community.

An agricultural overlay district is typically identified and delineated on the basis of productive agricultural soils and contiguous areas of active farms.

Rules for agricultural overlay zones have included requiring cluster development or restrictions on what soils can be developed, balanced with incentives for farming.  An agricultural zone or overlay zone can also be the “sending zone” for a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program (see the TDR section for more on this tool).

As an example

An agricultural protection overlay district may apply to parcels in certain zones that are greater than 10 acres, have at least 50 percent prime soils, or are located in a certified agricultural district. In addition, uses such as road side stands and housing for farm workers are permitted in the overlay district. The town planning board may require that new residential developments of three or more lots located within the overlay district comply with an agricultural conservation subdivision ordinance.  In addition, the planning board may require a 100 foot buffer between residential and agricultural uses.


  • It can be used to protect many large tracts of land for agriculture all at once.
  • Protects large tracts of land at a relatively low cost;
  • Reduces the conflicts between farmers and non-farming neighbors;
  • Can be implemented relatively easily;
  • Can be readily combined with other agricultural conservation tools;
  • Is relatively easily understood by the public;
  • Is flexible and easy to modify.


  • Can easily be undone by a change in the zoning ordinance;
  • Depending on the situation, can potentially reduce land values. However, it can also increase values.


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