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Accessory Structures for Urban Gardening

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  Is a shed or accessory structure allowed at a community garden or CFE?

Yes. City legislation now allows for accessory structures in the following circumstances: "No accessory building shall be located on a lot not containing a principal building, unless the principal use of the lot is for the raising of livestock , a community garden or a commercial farming enterprise. If a principal building or use on a lot is removed, any accessory building on the lot shall also be removed within 60 days and the premises made compliant with this code."

  What are the different types of accessory structures allowed on a community garden or CFE?

Accessory structures allowed include large agricultural building, hoop house, shed, and rain catchment systems.

  What accessory structures to community gardens or CFE require building permits?
  • Shed: No permit needed if it fits the criteria provided by City Development Center.
  • Pergola: Yes, permit is needed. Fee will be determined by cost of structure.
  • Rain catchment system: Maybe. If larger, or a unique design, the permit and design review will be required.
  • Hoop House: Yes, but no fee.
  • Farm stand (not mobile): Maybe.
  What is a large agricultural structure?

A large agricultural structure is an accessory structure that does not fit the definition of a hoop house and that is greater than 150 square feet in area. This term may include a rain catchment system.

  Does a large agricultural structure require a building permit?


  What is a shed?

A shed is defined in the City zoning code as an accessory building of not more than 150 square feet in floor area and not more than 14 feet in maximum height. If the structure meets the criteria of a shed, it does not need a building permit. For details on criteria for sheds click HERE

The City has sheds found in City Ordinances Sec. 295-201-544. The new rules simply permit for the first time having sheds on vacant lots, when there is a community garden. This will provide community gardens and urban farms the ability to safely store equipment and materials on-site. Note: A shed that uses the roof for rainwater harvesting is still considered a shed.

  Does a shed require a building permit?

No, unless it is greater than 150 square feet or less than 3 feet from a property line. "No permit shall be required for: detached accessory structures used as tool or storage sheds or similar uses, provided the floor areas do not exceed 150 square feet and the structures are not accessory to Group F or H occupancies and are at least 3 feet from the property lines." Link: 200-24.

  What type of shed can I have on a City-owned lot?

On licensed City-owned lots, the City does not allow in-the-ground concrete for the base or foundation of a shed or large agricultural structure. So on City-owned lots, alternate hard surfaces include 2 inches of macadam laid on 3 inches of gravel, or patio block laid on 3 inches of gravel.

  How many sheds can I have on a community garden property?

Since a shed is considered an accessory building, no more than 2 sheds are allowed at a community garden.

  What is a hoop house?

A hoop house is defined as "a temporary or permanent structure typically constructed with, but not limited to, piping or other material covered with translucent material for the purpose of growing food or ornamental crops, but not for storage of inorganic materials. A hoop house is considered more temporary than a greenhouse."

A greenhouse (structure with glass or non-flexible plastic walls) is NOT considered a hoop house. City greenhouse rules are found here.

  Does a hoop house require a building permit?

Hoop houses do require a permit. However, there is no fee. Agricultural buildings like hoop houses are exempt from the Wisconsin Commercial Building Code per SPS s. 361.02(3)(e), however the structures are checked to ensure they meet all zoning regulations.

  Are the height limits for a hoop house?
  1. There can be no more than 1 shed and 1 large agricultural structure located on single lot. Total lot coverage of two cannot exceed 15% of lot area.
  2. There is no limit on number of hoop houses on a single lot, however
  3. The total lot cover with all structures (total of all sheds, structures and hoop houses) may not exceed 70% of lot area.
  Do all structures on a community garden site count toward the 70% rule?


  Is a rain barrel considered an accessory structure?

No. A rain barrel means "an above-ground prefabricated storage receptacle with an automatic overflow diversion system that collects and stores storm water runoff from the roof of a structure that would have been otherwise routed into a storm drain. Rain barrel requirements: shall be securely covered, include an inlet screen, have an overflow discharge device sized to adequately convey overflow to the point of discharge and have a convenient and functional means of water withdrawal." Link: Sec 225-4-2.5

  Is there a limit to the number of rain barrels I can have on any type of lot?

No. There are no current rules limiting the number of rain barrels on any property.

  What is a rainwater catchment system?

A rainwater catchment system is any type of design to capture rainwater on-site. The system must meet the standards for an accessory structure. If it does not, you will need to work with the City's Development Center to review the proposal and determine if it would need to be heard by the Board of Zoning Appeals.

  Does a rainwater catchment system require a permit?

If it is less than 150 square feet and based on a shed-like design, it does not require a permit. Cisterns or water storage tanks are not rain barrels, and may require a building permit and plumbing permit. A plumbing permit is required for all underground storage tanks and any piping systems that would be buried and/or has a pump. Contact Plumbing Plan Review for more information at (414) 286-3116.

  What is a setback for an accessory structure?

A setback refers to the minimum distance of a structure from the property line of the property, as allowed by Milwaukee codes. These minimum distances are required by code in order to preserve views and improve aesthetics.

  Are there size restrictions or rules on accessory buildings for community gardens or commercial farming enterprises?

Yes. In keeping with a residential neighborhood, there are restrictions on the height of an accessory structure as well as how far away from the sides of the lot it can be. As a rule of thumb, no accessory building is allowed to be taller than a garage. The exact rules are in the chart below.


The reference to “Avg” above is the average setback of your adjacent neighbors’ homes.

How to use the chart: A garden with accessory structures is proposed to be located on a parcel that is abutted by properties with buildings on both sides. To determine the setback of an accessory structure, measure the distance from the sidewalk to each of the buildings on adjacent properties. Then, calculate the average setback between the two buildings and add an additional 5 feet.

Example: If the left-abutting house is set back 16 feet and the right-abutting house is setback 20 feet, the average setback is 18 feet. Then add 5 feet which would allow you to place the agricultural structure no less than 23 feet back.

There are many situations where there might not be immediate abutting buildings from which to calculate an average setback, but this is covered in s295-505-2-b. For questions on a specific property, contact the City Development Center.

  Are the rules for accessory structures different if I am not on land zoned residential?

No. The setback rules and restrictions are applied to each zoning district.

  How do I find out the zoning classification for a vacant lot or property online?
  1. Click HERE to access the Milwaukee Map Portal. Microsoft Silverlight is required.
  2. On the left, click on “I want to” shown in red in upper left corner. Click on “Find an address”.
  3. Enter the street address of the vacant lot (or a nearby known address) and click “Search”.

  4. On the left side of the screen, you will see a list of addresses, click on the correct address.

  5. and a box showing the address appears in the middle of the screen.
  6. Click “Zoom to Feature” and the map will take you to the address. A new pop-up box will appear with an arrow pointing to the specific lot.

  7. This will take you to the lot on the map. Click “View Additional Details”. Scroll down to see the zoning code designation shown in yellow below. 

If you have questions, please contact  Yves LaPierre in DCD Real Estate (414-286-5762).

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