Township loses agricultural zoning appeal

A four year battle over the construction of a garden center has ended with an appellate decision affirming that the retail building is exempt from zoning under Ohio’s agricultural exemption provision in ORC 519.21.   The Second District Court of Appeals decided Siebenthaler Company v. Beavercreek Township on December 11, 2009.

The Siebenthaler Company constructed a building in 2006 on its 435 acre parcel in Beavercreek Township, Greene County.  Siebenthaler has grown trees, plants and flowers on the property since the 1950s.  The company planned the garden center for the sale and display of its nursery stock along with other products such as garden supplies and garden furniture.  The building would also contain a few offices, including one for providing landscaping services to its clients. 

The issue in this case is whether the garden center is exempt from township zoning authority pursuant to the  agricultural zoning exemption in ORC 519.   ORC 519.21(A) prevents township zoning officials from using their authority “to prohibit the use of any land for agricultural purposes or the construction or use of buildings or structures incident to the use for agricultural purposes of the land on which such buildings or structures are located, including buildings or structures that are used primarily for vinting and selling wine and that are located on land any part of which is used for viticulture, and no zoning certificate shall be required for any such building or structure.”  (emphasis added).  Chapter 519 defines “agriculture” as “farming; ranching; aquaculture; apiculture; horticulture; viticulture; animal husbandry, including, but not limited to, the care and raising of livestock, equine, and fur-bearing animals; poultry husbandry and the production of poultry and poultry products; dairy production; the production of field crops, tobacco, fruits, vegetables, nursery stock, ornamental shrubs, ornamental trees, flowers, sod, or mushrooms; timber; pasturage; any combination of the foregoing; the processing, drying, storage, and marketing of agricultural products when those activities are conducted in conjunction with, but are secondary to, such husbandry or production” (emphasis added).

It seems apparent that Siebenthaler’s production activities fit within the definition of agriculture as the “production of nursery stock, trees anf flowers,” that its garden center also fits within that definition as the “marketing of agricultural products” conducted in conjunction with and secondary to such production, and that the building is “incident to an agricultural use of the land.”   Nevertheless, Beavercreek Township determined that the building did not qualify for the agricultural zoning exemption.  After detailing to the township why the agricultural zoning exemption applied, Siebenthaler constructed the garden center.  Upon the building’s completion, the zoning inspector issued a cease, desist and removal order based on Siebenthaler’s failure to obtain permits for the building.  Siebenthaler appealed to the township’s Board of Zoning Appeals, which upheld the zoning inspector’s order.  An appeal to the Greene County Court of Common Pleas yielded different results.  The court concluded that the garden center is incident to the primary use of the property for agriculture and therefore exempt from zoning regulation.  The township appealed the case to the court of appeals.

The court of appeals agreed that the agricultural zoning exemption applied to the garden center.  Evidence had indicated that the primary function of the garden center was to serve as an outlet for the agricultural products grown on the property, said the court.   To the contrary, the township produced no evidence suggesting that other activities, such as selling other products and offering landscaping services, were the primary activities or occupied a greater amount of time than agricultural production.  

In response to the Board of Zoning Appeals’ decision that the garden center “was not being used solely for a bonafide agricultural purpose,”  the court of appeals clarified that Ohio law does not require such.  Rather, the law requires that a structure only be “directly and immediately related”  and “usually or naturally and inseparably dependent upon” an agricultural use of the property.  Marketing activities may occur in conjunction with, and must be of lesser importance than, the agricultural production on the property, the court explained.

As of this date, there is no record of the township seeking review of the decision by the Ohio Supreme Court. 

The Siebenthaler case is one example of the tension that often exists between zoning officials and agricultural operations.  It’s difficult to understand why the Siebenthaler case progessed as far as it did, but many factors likely contributed to the situation:  the lack of clarity in ORC 519.21, the need to redefine “agriculture” in ORC 519.01, non-farm growth and development in traditionally agricultural areas, diversification of agricultural businesses, concerns for safety,  inadequate resources for zoning officials, property rights expectations, and of course, complete misunderstandings of the law.  Agriculture and local zoning authority is a continuing problem Ohio should address, first by identifying when incompatible land uses may occur and public health and safety may be at issue, second by revising our zoning laws to reflect the changes in agriculture and the rural landscape and last, through education.  

Watch for a few more agricultural zoning cases currently under consideration by Ohio courts.  The Second District’s opinion in Siebenthaler v. Beavercreek is available here.

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