accessory buildings

Asked January 19, 2013, 11:43 AM EST

Our present zoning requires that a residential home must be built before an accessory building is allowed. Since we are in a rural area, this has been a major issue and we would like to revise this zoning to allow accessory building in all districts within limitations. Any documentation or direction you can provide would be certainly appreciated.

Iron County Michigan

1 Response

It is very typical of zoning ordinances that most districts prohibit accessory structures in the absence of primary (principal) structures. One rationale for doing so in a residential district is to maintain the character of the district. For instance, a residential district with half of the lots only having garages would not make for much of a ‘neighborhood’ as it will lack pedestrians and houses with windows that allow for interaction between the public street and the private home. In this example there is also likely a negative property value impact on neighboring homes caused by the 'underdeveloped' lots that only have accessory structures.

Another reason for prohibiting accessory structures in the absence of primary structures has to do with the underlying intent of use separated zoning ordinances. Where you have an accessory structure without a primary structure, the property may be being used for something other than the intent of the district. For instance, a garage in a residential district is likely being used for vehicle storage or vehicle repair, neither of which are residential uses.

That said, some communities do allow for accessory structures without primary structures in some districts, such as agriculture. For instance, to have only an accessory structure in an agricultural district, a property might need to satisfy standards like:

  • The parcel is in an agricultural use; and
  • Such agricultural use is the primary use on the parcel; and
  • The parcel is at least 5 acres in size.
Similar stanards could be drafted for districts where the intent of the districts is resource utilization/extraction (forest production) or recreation. The logic is that landowners in these districts need garages/sheds for storage of machinery and tools or recreational vehicles. A simple exception could be added to the 'accessory structures' article/section of the ordinance allowing for accessory structures in certain districts, something like:
  • "The requirements in this Article shall not apply to accessory farm buildings (such as barns, windmills, and silos) used in the agricultural operations on a bona-fide farm, as defined in Article X (Definitions), except that farm buildings shall comply with the setback requirements for the districts in which they are located."
Also, it is typical that a detached accessory structure be permitted in rural residential districts prior to or simultaneously with the construction of the principal building, as long as the applicant gets a building permit and provides a performance guarantee (cash held temporarily by the local government that will cover the cost of removing the accessory structure if the the principal building is not finished).

The Michigan Zoning Enabling Act (PA 110 of 2006) does not speak to this and it is completely up to the jurisdiction to decide where accessory structures in the abscence of principal structures might be appropriate.