Since the beginning of the pandemic, Jordan Stevens has been running Indiana's only full-time goat yoga operation on her farm in rural Hamilton County. She's since been forced to stop offering that service by the planning officials who say her property isn't zoned for goat yoga uses.
Her application for a zoning variance that would have legalized the business, Happy Goat Lucky Yoga, was also denied by the county. The expense of that process plus the added costs and hassle of not being able to run her business on her own property has Stevens, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, considering shutting down her goat yoga business entirely and applying for disability benefits.
"It sucks," she tells Reason. "They take so much money from people who are already taxpayers and then we can't even do the things we want to on our own property that aren't even hurting anyone."
Stevens started Happy Goat Lucky Yoga with her partner in 2018. At the time, they were already raising Nigerian dwarf goats on her family's farm. The rising popularity of goat yoga—where people strike traditional yoga poses while goats clamber on and around them—presented both a business opportunity and the chance to share her goats with the community, she says.
The Hamilton County Reporter says that it was the only full-time goat yoga business in Indiana.
At first, Stevens rented out a space in a counseling center in town to run the classes, hiring independent contractors to teach them. A mix of the center shutdown during the pandemic, a desire to move classes outdoors, and her car breaking down led Stevens to move her business onto the farm.
About 20 people would show up to each class. The community really took to it, says Stevens. And the goats liked it, too.
"They thrive on human interaction," she says. "On the farm, we have a separate pen that we do the classes in and they run straight into that."
Stevens' troubles with the county began this summer when she received phone calls and emails from Hamilton County Plan Commission staff. They said that a complaint from a neighbor had triggered an investigation, which discovered that her business was out of compliance with her farms' agricultural zoning.
"I have determined that the operation of your goat yoga and goat snuggling businesses are not permitted uses in this current zoning classification for your property," wrote Plan Commission Director C.J. Taylor in a July 29 email. "You are required to cease all business operations on the property."
Stevens' farm and the smaller adjacent property owned by her grandmother, where the yoga classes were actually held, is zoned as an A-2 agricultural district.
In Hamilton County, that allows the property to be used for a number of agribusiness activities, including raising crops and livestock, retail sales of agricultural products, and home occupations. But none of those categories allowed for goat yoga or snuggling, according to Taylor, who said the business would have to obtain a zoning variance if it wanted to continue to operate legally.
His email came attached with a variance application and a suggestion she contact the state departments for Building Inspection and Transportation to get their input on legalizing her business.
The news that her goat yoga operation was technically illegal took Stevens by surprise. She had assumed that a goat-based business would be permitted by the property's agricultural zoning. The timing couldn't have been worse, she says. Her business only offers classes from May through October. The county's demand that they stop came right in the middle of their busy season.
Stevens and her partner are also in the process of adopting a child from foster care, meaning they couldn't afford the lost revenue.
Put off but not deterred, Stevens set about the process of applying for that zoning variance. She wrote up a business plan for Happy Goat Lucky, posted county signs on her property about an upcoming public hearing on her application (which she had to pay for), and took out required ads in two local papers notifying people about her variance request. She was also required to send certified mail to neighboring property owners about her application.
That all cost Stevens about $1,000, including a $500 application fee. The lost revenue from two months of not hosting classes cost her another $4,000 she says.
It was all for nought.
At a preliminary hearing, commission staff said that she would need to apply for two variances, one for her grandmother's property where the classes are held and another for her neighboring farm where the goats are kept. That wasn't something Stevens could easily afford, given the expense of the first application.
"It was a battle the whole way," she says. "I feel it was being made as difficult as possible."
That initial hearing resulted in Plan Commission staff giving Happy Goat Lucky's application a negative recommendation. A Board of Zoning Appeals meeting in late September didn't go any better. Her application was officially rejected.
(Reason reached out to the Hamilton County Plan Commission but didn't receive a response by press time.)
That was obviously a blow for Stevens and her partner. It also presented a serious financial problem for them as they had already sold a number of gift certificates for upcoming classes.
Fortunately, neighboring Tipton County officials proved more receptive to her business. She was able to rent out their county fairgrounds, where she'll close out the season. Having to move her whole operation out of county obviously cost a lot more, given the need to rent the fairgrounds and then cart the goats there and back. Stevens said it nevertheless cost less than having to give everyone refunds for the classes.
The expense and the whole experience has put on Stevens and her partner is a difficult financial position, as the goat yoga business is currently Stevens' only income. She says her health condition prevents her from working other jobs outside the home and that she's currently applying for disability benefits.
In addition to the financial cost of having her business shut down, Stevens says it's a loss for her community, and the wide range of people who were drawn to goat yoga and/or snuggling.
Stevens tells the story of a pre-teen girl with autism who came to one of her classes with her mother. The daughter was visibly nervous at first, but quickly relaxed when one of the goats, Sofia, went right up to her.
"Sofia just went and sat on this girl's mat the whole class and she was just petting Sofia the whole time. You could just see calm on her face and how she was so content. It's hard to describe the peace that you see with this girl," she says. "Those are the stories that really are why I did it. It was very therapeutic for people."
Unfortunately, moments like that aren't allowed in an A-2-zoned agricultural district.