Written by Evin Bachelor, Law Fellow, OSU Extension Agricultural & Resource Law Program
The answer to the question in the title is still ‘it depends,’ but the answer is more likely yes when the barn is also a winery. A recent court decision found that a barn in Medina County where weddings occur qualifies for the agricultural zoning exemption because of the barn’s use for wine production, marketing, and sales.
The decision represents the culmination of a battle between Medina County’s Litchfield Township and Forever Blueberry Barn, LLC that began in 2015. The township filed suit that year, alleging that Forever Blueberry Barn was operating a rental facility for wedding receptions in violation of the township zoning ordinance. At first, the trial court sided with the township and issued an injunction; however, Forever Blueberry Barn was able to lift that injunction by convincing the trial court that the agricultural zoning exemption’s vinting and viticulture provisions apply.
The first time the case went to the Ninth District Court of Appeals, the township won a brief victory when the appellate court ordered the trial court to review its decision and determine specifically whether or not the viticulture exception applied to the barn in question. Essentially, the court of appeals believed that the trial court was convinced that the exemption should apply, but the trial court’s responsibility is to also explain why.
The second time on appeal, which resulted in the decision just recently issued, the Ninth District believed that the lower court appropriately examined and applied the agricultural zoning exemption’s vinting and viticulture provisions. The Ninth District relied on case law from the Ohio Supreme Court instructing lower courts to “liberally construe” exemptions from restrictive zoning provisions. The agricultural zoning exemption in Ohio Revised Code § 519.21 qualifies as an exemption from restrictive zoning provisions. Specifically, it exempts “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.” That case, which is cited as Terry v. Sperry, 2011-Ohio-3364, is available here.
One of the big issues the second time on appeal involved what is known as the burden of proof. The township argued that the barn owner had to prove that the barn’s primary use was vinting and selling wine by clear and convincing evidence. This is a fairly high standard in civil cases, and courts often reserve the higher standard for accusations of things such as fraud or breach of fiduciary duties. Essentially, the township wanted to see receipts and written business plans that the barn owner did not have.
However, the court said that determining the barn’s primary use must only be proven by a preponderance of the evidence, which asks simply whether it is more likely that the barn was used primarily for vinting rather than for some other purpose.
Here, the court was persuaded by testimony of the barn’s owner that the barn was primarily used for vinting and selling wine. The member’s testimony included statements that:
- Part of the barn will be used as a tasting room where wine will be sold directly to the public during established business hours;
- The barn itself may be rented out for private events, including weddings, on the condition that a certain quantity of wine is purchased for the event;
- Grapevines had been planted on the property and had started producing mature grapes.
As to this last point, the court noted that even one grapevine is sufficient to count as the growing of grapes. The court again cited the Ohio Supreme Court’s Terry v. Sperry decision, which said that there is no minimum number of vines needed for a farm to qualify as engaging in viticulture.
It is important to note that this decision in Litchfield Twp. v. Forever Blueberry was not unanimous. One judge dissented, believing that the primary use of the barn is as an event venue, with vinting activities being merely peripheral. This dissent demonstrates the continued lack of a consensus on the application of this statute to wedding barns, even in cases with evidence of wine making activities.
What are our main takeaways from this case?
- There is still no consensus on whether wedding barns are exempt from township zoning.
- One producing grapevine can be sufficient to establish a viticulture activity.
- Renting out barns for events must still be secondary to the barn’s vinting use.
The case is cited as Litchfield Twp. Bd. of Trustees v. Forever Blueberry Barn, L.L.C., 2019-Ohio-322 (9th Dist.), and the full text of the decision is available here.