“Riding a horse is not a gentle hobby, to be picked up and laid down like a game of solitaire. It is a grand passion.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
For those of us with a passion for horses, home is not always where the heart is . . . home is where the horse is. Which is why, many of us dream of owning a farm of our very own someday, but it may not be as simple as buying some land and throwing up a few 12’ x 12’ boxes. The process of designing, building and operating an equine facility, whether it’s meant for personal use or boarding and training can be daunting and overwhelming, which is why seeking out the assistance of a knowledgeable equine lawyer may be just the help you need to avoid unnecessary risk and headaches.
The entire process can be broken down into three categories: (1) site planning; (2) design; and (3) construction.
Step one in the process is not just buying a piece of property, it’s buying the right piece of property. The purpose behind land use regulation is to allow a city to protect the public health, safety, and welfare of its residents. Local land use and zoning restrictions can have a significant impact on how a property owner can use their own property, including restricting what can be built, where a structure can be located, if horses are allowed and how many horses per acre are permitted.
Zoning laws separate land into different basic categories that dictate what can be built and where. The four basic zones are residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural. Within these main types of zones, there will generally be additional restrictions that, depending on the municipality, can be very detailed to including things like: size and height of buildings, setbacks from the street, location of utility lines, water rights, and even the number of horses per acre. In addition to zoning laws regulating how a property can be developed, there are building codes that regulate where and how a building or structure should be constructed.
A good real estate agent may be able to point you toward a property with equine friendly zoning, but a lawyer can assist with requesting a change in zoning or land use restrictions to better suit your needs on a particular property.
Most states have laws that require structures larger than 4,000 square feet to be designed by a licensed architect to protect life safety and ensure structures meet building codes. In a perfect world, everyone would be able to locate an architect or design professional and general contractor with experience developing equine facilities but when that is not an option, a knowledgeable equine lawyer may be able to assist in assuring that a facility is designed and constructed to minimize exposure to liability. Architects, specifically, have expertise in multiple phases of design, including feasibility studies, site design, barn and building design, permitting, budgeting, and ensuring everything complies with the local building code regulations.
Part of the design process involves the creation of a site plan. A site plan is an architectural plan of your property from a bird’s eye view that includes elements such as setbacks, distance between buildings, property lines, building footprint, parking, sanitary sewer lines and drainage. An architect unfamiliar with equine facilities may not know to consider the importance of ensure parking and keeping vehicular traffic separate and away from riding arenas or areas with higher equine foot traffic, placement of the stable to allow for good air flow and ventilation, providing adequate space for horse trailers, delivery trucks and emergency vehicles to easily maneuver, and waste management to ensure there is no risk of contamination to the water supply. Another design factor to consider involves making sure your equine friends remain on your property. All 50 states have some form of a loose livestock statute holding owners responsible for damages caused by loose animals.
The final step, when possible is to find a licensed general contractor, knowledgeable with equine facilities, to gather bids and sign contracts with subcontractors (for smaller projects, you may be able to act as your own general contractor and hire each individual subcontractor). A general contractor will frequently work with the architect to identify areas where you can save money, often called value engineering. However, there are many hidden dangers for horse and rider that even a general contractor familiar with equine facilities, may not know about.
An attorney with experience in equine and construction law can assist the owner by negotiating favorable terms in a construction contact, mitigating exposure to liability by identifying hidden dangers in the work, and assuring compliance with consumer protection statutes intended to protect the owners property rights. In the event of disputes during construction, having an attorney familiar with the project will allow for swift and economical resolution. In my experience, if a horse can figure out a way to injure itself. . . it will, therefore creating the safest environment possible for horse and rider is important. An attorney familiar with equine law can assist in identifying hidden or unexpected dangers such as the importance of using slip resistant materials for stable aisleways, ensuring any gap between boards or panels is narrow enough that a stray hoof cannot fit through and get caught, putting the fence post on the outside of a riding arena, and making sure there are no pointy objects, such as nails/screw or sharp corners in areas where horses will be housed or loose.
Congratulations, your dream farm is done . . . now what? Be on the lookout for Part 2, Operating an Equine Facility: Should you Consult a Lawyer?
Danielle N. Amico is one of the construction industry and equine attorneys at Zinzow Law, LLC. For more information, or to inquire about a free seminar on this or other legal topics, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.zinzowlaw.com.