The siting of renewable energy projects on Ohio farmland is a divisive issue these days, pitting neighbors against neighbors and farmers against farmers. Some support expanding renewable energy capacity while others oppose losing productive farmland or changing the rural landscape. A common question arising in this conflict is this: when can a county or township say “no” to a proposed renewable energy development? Several new laws, old laws, and recent court cases can help answer this question, although the answer is not always clear.
The “public utility exemption” from zoning. A long-standing provision of Ohio law that limits county and township land use power is the “public utility exemption” from zoning. Ohio Revised Code Sections 303.211(counties) and 519.211 (townships) specifically state that counties and townships have no zoning authority “in respect to the location, erection, construction, reconstruction, change, alteration, maintenance, removal, use, or enlargement of any buildings or structures of any public utilities.” The historical reason for this exemption is to keep local regulations from interfering with the provision of public utility services to Ohio residents. But what is a “public utility”? The exemption does not define the term, leaving Ohio courts to determine what is and is not a public utility on a case-by-case basis. More on that later.
New powers in Senate Bill 52. Effective in October of 2021, Senate Bill 52 gave new powers to county commissioners over certain renewable energy developments, setting aside the “public utility exemption” in those situations. The new law states that counties can designate restricted areas where wind and solar development is prohibited and can prohibit an individual proposed wind and solar facility or limit its size. These new powers, however, apply only to facilities with a single interconnection to the electrical grid and beyond a certain production size. For solar facilities, that size is 50 MW or more of energy production and for wind facilities, it’s 5 MW or more. Facilities that aren’t connected to the grid or are beneath those amounts are not subject to the new powers granted in S.B. 52. Additionally, facilities that had reached a certain point in the state approval process aren’t subject to the new law. Several Ohio counties have already established restricted areas or worked with townships to determine whether the county will approve individual projects as they come forward.
Authority over “small wind farms.” New wind power development in Ohio a decade ago led to the “small wind farm” provision in Ohio Revised Code Sections 303.213 (counties) and 519.213 (townships). This law allows counties and townships to use their zoning powers to regulate the location and construction of publicly and privately owned “small wind farms,” regardless of the public utility exemption. A “small wind farm” is any wind turbine that is not subject to Ohio Power Siting Board jurisdiction, meaning that it produces less than 5 MW of energy. Some counties and townships have utilized this provision of law to establish setback distances for wind turbines in residential areas.
The “bioenergy” exemptions. Yet another Ohio law limits county and township zoning authority over bioenergy facilities. Found in the “agricultural exemption from zoning” statute, Ohio Revised Code Sections 303.21(C) (counties) and 519.21(C) (townships) states that county and township zoning cannot prohibit the use of any land for biodiesel production, biomass energy production, electric or heat energy production, or biologically derived methane gas production if the facility is on land that qualifies as “land devoted exclusively to agricultural use” under Ohio’s Current Agricultural Use Valuation program and if, for biologically derived methane gas, the facility does not produce more than 5 MW or 17.06 million BTUs of energy. Ohio now has several facilities that fit within this exemption from zoning authority.
Two recent cases examine when a renewable energy facility a “public utility.” The “public utility exemption” from county and township zoning was at issue in two similar Ohio cases concerning biodigesters, facilities that process manure and other solid wastes into methane gas that is used to generate electricity. The most recent is Dovetail Energy v. Bath Township. The township claimed that the Dovetail biodigester located on farmland in Greene County was an “industrial use” that violated township zoning regulations. The owners argued that the biodigester was exempt from township zoning under both the “public utility” exemption and the “bioenergy” exemption.
The case reached the Second District Court of Appeals, which focused a large part of its analysis on the issue of whether the biodigester is a “public utility” that is exempt from township zoning under Ohio Revised Code 519.211. Relying on earlier cases from the Ohio Supreme Court, the court explained that an entity is a public utility if “the nature of its operation is a matter of public concern” and if “membership is indiscriminately and reasonably made available to the general public” as a public service.
The court analyzed the “public service” and “public concern” factors for the Dovetail biodigester, examining first whether Dovetail provides a public service, which requires a showing that the facility indiscriminately provides essential goods or services to the public, which has a legal right to demand or receive the goods or services, and that the goods or services can’t be arbitrarily withdrawn. Because Dovetail generates electricity that is sold into the wholesale energy market and used to provide energy to local utilities and customers and because Dovetail is also required to provide renewable energy credits that it cannot arbitrarily or unreasonable withdraw, the court concluded that the facility is a “public service.”
Factors determining whether Dovetail’s operation is also a matter of “public concern” that the court analyzed included whether Dovetail “serves such a substantial part of the public that its rates, charges and methods of operation become a public concern.” The court looked to Ohio’s incentives for renewable energy development, the lack of competition in the electric grid, the “heavy” regulatory environment for Dovetail, and its payment of public utility taxes as indications that Dovetail and the energy it produces are “public concerns.” Meeting both the “public service” and “public concern” components, the appeals court agreed with the lower court’s ruling that Dovetail is a public utility and is exempt from Bath Township zoning regulations.
The Dovetail decision echoes an earlier decision in the Fifth Appellate District, Westfield Township v. Emerald Bioenergy, where the appellate court examined a biodigester on farmland in Morrow County and found that the township could not regulate it because it is a “public utility.” The court cited factors such as Emerald’s provision of electric to the general public through interconnection agreements that distribute the energy to the energy grid, its lack of control over which customers receive or use the energy, its renewable energy credit requirements that can’t be arbitrarily or unreasonably withdrawn, its acceptance of waste from any customer, its governmental regulations and oversight, and its public utility taxes. The court also noted that it need not address the “bioenergy” exemption because it found the enterprise to be a “public utility.”
Both townships in the Dovetail Energy and Emerald Bioenergy cases requested a review of the decision by the Ohio Supreme Court. But the Supreme Court decided not to hear either case, although several of the justices dissented from that decision in each case. Without further review by the Supreme Court, the appellate court decisions stand.
What do these cases mean for solar energy facilities under 50 MW? Recall that S.B. 52 allows counties to prohibit or restrict solar facilities that are 50 MW or higher, but no other law addresses solar facilities with a single interconnection point to the energy grid that produce less than 50 MW. Would such a facility be a “public utility” under the public utility exemption? As with Dovetail and Emerald, a court would have to examine the solar facility and determine whether “the nature of its operation is a matter of public concern” and if “membership is indiscriminately and reasonably made available to the general public” as a public service. If so, a county or township could not use zoning to prohibit or regulate the location or construction of the solar facility.
Learn more about renewable energy laws in the Farm Office Energy Law Library at https://farmoffice.osu.edu/our-library/energy-law.
It's time for another roundup of legal questions we've been receiving in the Agricultural & Resource Law Program. Our sampling this month includes registering a business, starting a butchery, noxious weed liability in a farm lease situation, promoting local craft beer at a farmers market, herd share agreements, and agritourism's exemption from zoning. Read on to hear the answers to these questions from across the state.
I want to name my farm business but am not an LLC or corporation. Do I have to register the name I want to use for the business?
Yes, if your business name won’t be your personal name and even if the business is not a formally organized entity such as an LLC. You must register the business with the Ohio Secretary of State. First, make sure the name you want to use is not already registered by another business. Check the name availability using the Secretary of State’s business name search tool at https://businesssearch.ohiosos.gov/. If the name is available, register the name with the Secretary of State using the form at https://www.sos.state.oh.us/businesses/filing-forms--fee-schedule/#name. If there is already a business registered with the name you want to use, you might be able to register a similar name if your proposed name is “distinguishable” from the registered name. The Secretary of State reviews names to make sure they are not already registered and are distinguishable from similar names. See the Guide to Name Availability page for examples of when names are or are not distinguishable from one another.
I am interested in starting a small butchery. What resources and information are helpful for beginning this endeavor?
There are legal issues associated with beginning a meat processing operation, and there are also feasibility issues to first consider. A good resource for initial considerations to make for starting a meat processing business is this toolkit from OSU at https://meatsci.osu.edu/programs/meat-processing-business-toolkit. A similar resource that targets niche meat marketers is at https://www.nichemeatprocessing.org/get-started/. On the legal side, requirements vary depending on whether you will only process meat as a custom operator or fully inspected operator, and if you also want to sell the meat through your own meat market. The Ohio Department of Agriculture’s Division of Meat Inspection has licensing information for different types of processors here: https://agri.ohio.gov/divisions/meat-inspection/home. If you also want to have a retail meat market, you’ll need a retail food establishment (RFE) license from your local health department. To help you with that process, it’s likely that your health department will have a food facility plan review resource like this one from the Putnam County Health Department.
Is Ohio’s noxious weeds law enforceable against the tenant operator of my farm, or just against me as the landowner?
Ohio’s noxious weed law states that the township trustees, upon receiving written information that noxious weeds are on land in their township, must notify the “owner, lessee, agent, or tenant having charge of the land.” This language means that the trustees are to notify a tenant operator if the operator is the one who is in charge of the land where the noxious weeds exist. The law then requires the notified party –which should be the tenant operator—to cut or destroy the noxious weeds within five days or show why there is no need to do so. The concern with a rental situation like yours is that if the tenant does not destroy the weeds in five days, the law requires the township to hire someone to do so and assess the costs of removal as a lien on the land. This puts you as the landowner at risk of financial responsibility for the lien and would require you to seek recourse against the tenant operator if you want to recover those costs. Another option is to take care of removing the noxious weeds yourself, but that could possibly expose you to a claim of crop damages from the tenant operator. A written farm lease can address this situation by clearing shifting the responsibility for noxious weeds in the crop to the tenant operator and stating how to deal with crop damages if the landowner must step in and destroy the noxious weeds.
Can we promote local craft beers at our farmers market?
Ohio established a new “F-11” permit in H.B. 674 last year. The F-11 is a temporary permit that allows a qualifying non-profit organization to organize and conduct an event that introduces, showcases, or promotes Ohio craft beers that are sold at the event. There are restrictions on how long the event can last, how much beer can be sold, who can participate in the event, and requirements that food must also be sold at the event. The permit is $60 per day for up to 3 days. Learn more about the permit on the Department of Commerce website at https://com.ohio.gov/divisions-and-programs/liquor-control/new-permit-info/guides-and-resources/permit-class-types.
Can a goat herdsman legally provide goat milk through a herd share agreement program?
Herd share agreements raise the raw milk controversy and whether it’s legal or safe to sell or consume raw milk. Ohio statutory law does clearly prohibit the sales of raw milk to an “ultimate consumer” in ORC 971.04, on the basis that raw milk poses a food safety risk to consumers. But the law does not prohibit animal owners from consuming raw milk from their own animals. A herd share agreement sells ownership in an animal, rather than selling the raw milk from the animal. Under the agreement, a person who pays the producer for a share of ownership in the animal may take their share of milk from the animal. The Ohio Department of Agriculture challenged the use of herd share agreements as illegal in the 2006 case of Schitmeyer v. ODA, but the court did not uphold the ODA’s attempt to revoke the license of the dairy that was using herd share agreements. As a result, it appears that the herd share agreement approach for raw milk sales is currently legally acceptable. But many still claim that raw milk consumption is risky because the lack of pasteurization can allow harmful bacteria to exist in the milk.
Can the township prohibit me from having a farm animal petting zoo on my hay farm?
It depends whether you qualify for the “agritourism exemption” granted in Ohio law. The agritourism exemption states that a county or township can’t use its zoning authority to prohibit “agritourism,” although it may have same zoning regulations that affect agritourism buildings, parking lots, and access to and from the property. “Agritourism” is an agriculturally related entertainment, recreational, cultural, educational or historical activity that takes place on a working farm where a certain amount of commercial agricultural production is also taking place. If you have more than ten acres in commercial production, like growing and selling your alfalfa, or you have less than ten acres but averaged more than $2,500 in gross sales from your alfalfa, you qualify under the agritourism exemption and the township zoning authorities cannot prohibit you from having your petting zoo. However, any zoning regulations the township has for ingress and egress on your property, buildings used primarily for your petting zoo, or necessary parking areas would apply to your petting zoo activity. If you don't qualify as "agritourism," the township zoning regulations could apply to the petting zoo activity, and you must determine whether a petting zoo is a permitted use according to your zoning district, which could depend upon whether or not you want to operate the petting zoo as a commercial business.
It’s time to round up a sampling of legal questions we’ve received the past month or so. The questions effectively illustrate the breadth of “agricultural law,” and we’re happy to help Ohioans understand its many parts. Here’s a look at the inquiries that have come our way,
I’m considering a carbon credit agreement. What should I look for? Several types of carbon credit agreements are now available to Ohio farmers, and they differ from one another so it’s good to review them closely and with the assistance of an attorney and an agronomist. For starters, take time to understand the terminology, make sure you can meet the initial eligibility criteria, review payment and penalty terms, know what types of practices are acceptable, determine “additionality” requirements for creating completing new carbon reductions, know the required length of participation and how long the carbon reductions must remain in place, understand how carbon reductions will be verified and certified, be aware of data ownership rights, and review legal remedy provisions. That’s a lot! Read more about each of these recommendations in our blog post on “Considering Carbon Farming?”
I want to replace an old line fence. Can I remove trees along the fence when I build the new fence? No, unless they are completely on your side of the boundary line. Both you and your neighbor co-own the boundary trees, so you’ll need the neighbor’s permission to remove them. You could be liable to the neighbor for the value of the trees if you remove them without the neighbor’s approval, and Ohio law allows triple that value if you remove them against the neighbor’s wishes or recklessly harm the trees in the process of building the fence. You can, however, trim back the neighbor’s tree branches to the property line as long as you don’t harm the tree. Also, Ohio’s line fence law in ORC 971.08 allows you to access up to 10 feet of the neighbor’s property to build the fence, although you can be liable if you damage the property in doing so.
I want to sell grow annuals and sell the cut flowers. Do I need a nursery license? No. Ohio’s nursery dealer license requirement applies to those who sell or distribute “nursery stock,” which the law defines as any “hardy” tree, shrub, plant, bulb, cutting, graft, or bud, excluding turf grass. A “hardy” plant is one that is capable of surviving winter temperatures. Note that the definition of nursery stock also includes some non-hardy plants sold out of the state. Because annual flowers and cuttings from those flowers don’t fall into the definition of “nursery stock,” a seller need not obtain the nursery dealer license.
Must I collect sales tax on cut flowers that I sell? Yes. In agriculture, we’re accustomed to many items being exempt from Ohio’s sales tax. That’s not the case when selling flowers and plants directly to customers, which is a retail sale that is subject to the sales tax. The seller must obtain a vendor’s license from the Ohio Department of Taxation, then collect and submit the taxes regularly. Read more about vendor’s licenses and sales taxes in our law bulletin at this link.
I’m an absentee landowner who rents my farmland to a tenant operator. Should I have liability insurance on the land? Yes. A general liability policy with a farm insurer should be affordable and worth the liability risk reduction. But a few other steps can further minimize risk. Require your tenant operator to have liability insurance that adequately covers the tenant’s operations, and include indemnification provisions in your farm lease that shift liability to the tenant during the lease period. Also consider requiring your tenant or hiring someone to do routine property inspections, monitor trespass issues, and ensure that the property is in a safe condition.
My neighbor and I both own up to the shoreline on either side of a small lake--do I have the right to use the whole lake? It depends on where the property lines lay and whether the lake is connected to other waters. If the lake is completely surrounded by private property and not connected to other “navigable” waters, such as a stream that feeds into it, the lake is most likely a private water body. Both of you could limit access to your side of the property line as it runs through the lake. You also have the legal right to make a “reasonable use” of the water in the lake from your land, referred to as “riparian rights.” You could withdraw it to water your livestock, for example; but you cannot “unreasonably” interfere with your neighbor’s right to reasonably use the water. The law changes if the lake is part of a “navigable” waterway. It is then a “water of the state” that is subject to the public right of navigation. Others could float on and otherwise navigate the water, and you could navigate over to your neighbor’s side. Public users would not have the riparian rights that would allow them to withdraw and use the water, however, and would be trespassing if they go onto the private land along the shore.
If I start an agritourism activity on my farm, will I lose my CAUV status? No, not if your activities fit within the legal definition of “agritourism.” Ohio law states in ORC 5713.30(A)(5) that “agritourism” activities do not disqualify a parcel from Ohio’s Current Agricultural Use Valuation (CAUV) program. “Agritourism,” according to the definition in ORC 901.80, is any agriculturally related educational, entertainment, historical, cultural, or recreational activity on a “farm” that allows or invites members of the general public to observe, participate in, or enjoy that activity. The definition of a “farm” is the same as the CAUV eligibility—a parcel devoted to commercial agricultural production that is either 10 acres or more or, if under 10 acres, grosses $2500 annually from agricultural production. This means that land that is enrolled in the CAUV program qualifies as a “farm” and can add agritourism activities without becoming ineligible for CAUV.
Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll do our best to provide an answer. Also be sure to check out our law bulletins and the Ag Law Library on https://farmoffice.osu.edu, which explain many of Ohio’s vast assortment of agricultural laws.
Did you know that the loudest land animal is the howler monkey? The howler monkey can produce sounds that reach 140 decibels. For reference, that is about as loud as a jet engine at take-off, which can rupture your eardrums.
Like the howler monkey, we are here to make some noise about recent agricultural and resource law updates from across the country. This edition of the Ag Law Harvest brings you court cases dealing with zoning ordinances, food labeling issues, and even the criminal prosecution of a dairy farm. We then look at a couple states proposing, or disposing, of legislation related to agriculture.
A zoning ordinance has Michigan landowners hogtied. The Michigan Supreme Court recently ruled that Michigan’s 6-year statute of limitations does not prevent a township from suing a landowner for alleged ongoing zoning violations, even if the start of landowner’s alleged wrongdoing occurred outside the statute of limitations period.
Harvey and Ruth Ann Haney (“Defendants”) own property in a Michigan township that is zoned for commercial use. Defendants began raising hogs on their property in 2006. Defendants started with one hog and allegedly grew their herd to about 20 hogs in 2016. In 2016, Fraser Township (“Plaintiff”) filed suit against Defendants seeking a permanent injunction to enforce its zoning ordinance and to prevent Defendants from raising hogs and other animals that would violate the zoning ordinance on their commercially zoned property. Defendants filed a motion to dismiss and argued that Plaintiff’s claims were barred because of Michigan’s 6-year statute of limitations. A statute of limitations is a law that prevents certain lawsuits from being filed against individuals after a certain amount of time has passed. In Ohio, for example, if someone were to be injured in a car accident, they would only have 2 years to bring a personal injury claim against the person who caused the accident. That’s because Ohio has passed a law that mandates most personal injury claims to be brought within 2 years of the date of injury.
In the Michigan case, Defendants argued that because their first alleged wrongdoing occurred in 2006, Plaintiff could not file their lawsuit against the Defendants in 2016. A trial court disagreed with Defendants and denied their motion to dismiss. Defendants took the motion up to the Michigan Court of Appeals, and the Court of Appeals found that Plaintiff’s claim was barred because of the 6-year statute of limitations. Plaintiff appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court, which overturned the Court of Appeals’ decision and held that Plaintiff’s claim was not barred. The Michigan Supreme Court reasoned that the presence of the hogs constitutes the alleged unlawful conduct of the Defendants, and that unlawful conduct occurred in 2006 and has occurred almost every day thereafter. The court concluded that because Defendants unlawful conduct was ongoing after 2006, Plaintiff’s claims were not barred by the statute of limitations. The case now goes back to the trial court to be tried on the merits of Plaintiff’s claims against Defendants.
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Family Dollar Stores, Inc. (“Family Dollar”) has found itself in a bit of nutty situation. Plaintiff, Heather Rudy, has filed a class action lawsuit against Family Dollar, alleging that Family Dollar has misled her and other consumers by marketing its Eatz brand Smoked Almonds as “smoked.” Plaintiff asserts that Family Dollar is being deceptive because its Smoked Almonds are not smoked over an open fire, but instead flavored with a natural smoke flavoring. Plaintiff’s claims against Family Dollar include violating the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act (“ICFA”); breaches of express warranty and implied warranty of merchantability; violation of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act; negligent misrepresentation; fraud; and unjust enrichment.
Family Dollar filed an early motion to dismiss, arguing that Plaintiff has not stated a claim for which relief can be granted. A federal district court in Illinois dismissed some of Plaintiff’s claims but ruled that some claims against Family Dollar should be allowed to continue. Plaintiff’s claims for breaches of warranty, violation of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, negligent misrepresentation, and fraud were all dismissed by the court. The court did decide that Plaintiff’s claims under ICFA unjust enrichment should stay. The court reasoned that Plaintiff’s interpretation that Family Dollar’s almonds would be smoked over an open fire are not unreasonable. Moreover, the court recognized that nothing on the front label of Family Dollar’s Smoked Almonds would suggest, to consumers, that the term “smoked” refers to a flavoring rather than the process by which the almonds are produced. The court even pointed out that competitors’ products contain the word “flavored” on the front of similar “smoked” products. Therefore, the court concluded that Plaintiff’s interpretation of Family Dollar’s Smoked Almonds was not irrational and her claims for violating the ICFA should continue into the discovery phase of litigation, and possibly to trial.
Undercover investigation leads to criminal prosecution of Pennsylvania dairy farm. A Pennsylvania Court of Appeals (“Court of Appeals”) recently decided on Animal Outlook’s (“AO”) appeal from a Pennsylvania trial court’s order dismissing AO’s petition to review the decision of the Franklin County District Attorney’s Office (“DA”) to not prosecute a Pennsylvania dairy farm (the “Dairy Farm”) for animal cruelty and neglect. An undercover agent for AO held employment at the Dairy Farm and captured video of the condition and treatment of animals on the farm, which AO claims constitutes criminal activity under Pennsylvania’s animal cruelty laws.
AO compiled a report containing evidence and expert reports documenting the Dairy Farm’s alleged animal cruelty and neglect. AO submitted its report to the Pennsylvania State Police (“PSP”) in 2019. The PSP conducted its own investigation which lasted for over a year, and in March 2020, issued a press release indicating that the DA would not prosecute the Dairy Farm.
In response, AO drafted private criminal complaints against the Dairy Farm and submitted those to the local Magisterial District Judge. The local Magisterial Judge disapproved all of AO’s complaints and concluded that the complaints “lacked merit.” AO then filed a petition in a Pennsylvania trial court to review the Magisterial Judge’s decision. The trial court dismissed AO’s petition and concluded that the DA correctly determined “that there was not enough evidence, based upon the law, to initiate prosecution against any of the Defendants alleged in the private criminal complaints.” AO appealed the trial court’s decision to the Court of Appeals which ended up reversing the trial court’s decision.
The Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court failed to view the presented evidence through a lens that is favorable to moving forward with prosecution and the trial court failed to consider all reasonable inferences that could be made on the evidence. The Court of Appeals observed that the trial court made credibility determinations of the evidence by favoring the evidence gathered by PSP over the evidence presented by AO. The Court of Appeals noted that a trial court’s duty is to determine “whether there was evidence proffered to satisfy each element of an offense, not to make credibility determinations and conduct fact-finding.” Additionally, the Court of Appeals found that the trial court did not do a complete review of all the evidence and favored the evidenced obtained by PSP over the evidence presented by AO. The Court of Appeals determined that had the trial court reviewed all the evidence, it would have found that AO provided sufficient evidence to establish prima facie cases of neglect and animal cruelty, which would have provided the legal basis for the DA’s office to prosecute the claims.
Lastly, the DA argued that no legal basis for prosecution exists because the Dairy Farm is protected by the normal agricultural operations exemption to Pennsylvania’s animal cruelty laws. However, the Court of Appeals found that the conduct of the Dairy Farm, as alleged, would fall outside the normal agricultural operations exemption because AO’s report demonstrates that the Dairy Farm’s practices were not the dairy industry norm.
Ultimately the Court of Appeals found that AO’s private criminal complaints did have merit and that the DA had enough evidence and a legal basis to prosecute AO's claims. The Court of Appeals remanded the trial court’s decision and ordered that the DA to go ahead and prosecute the Dairy Farm on its alleged animal cruelty violations.
Wyoming fails to pass legislation limiting what can be considered agricultural land. The Wyoming House of Representatives struck down a recent piece of legislation looking to increase the threshold requirement to allow landowners the ability to classify their land as agricultural, have their land appraised at an agricultural value, and receive the lower tax rate for agricultural land. Current Wyoming law classifies land as agricultural if: (1) the land is currently being used for an agricultural purpose; (2) the land is not part of a patted subdivision; and (3) the owner of the land derived annual gross revenue of $500 or more from the marketing of agricultural products, or if the land is leased, the lessee derived annual gross revenues of $1,000 or more from the marketing of agricultural products.
Wyoming House Bill 23 sought to increase the threshold amount of gross revenues derived from the marketing of agricultural products to $5,000 for all producers. The Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation and Wyoming Stock Growers associations supported the bill. Proponents of the bill argued that the intent of agricultural land appraisals is to support commercial agriculture, not wealthy landowners taking advantage of Wyoming’s tax laws. Opponents of the bill argued that House Bill 23 hurt small agricultural landowners and that the benefits of the bill did not outweigh the harms. House Bill 23 died with a vote of 34-25, failing to reach the 2/3 approval for bills to advance.
Oregon introduces legislation relating to overtime for agricultural workers. Oregon House Bill 4002 proposes to require agricultural employers to pay all agricultural employees an overtime wage for time worked over 40-hours in a workweek. House Bill 4002 does propose a gradual phase-in of the overtime pay requirements for agricultural employees. For the years 2023 and 2024, agricultural employees would be entitled to overtime pay for any time worked over 55 hours in a workweek. For 2025 and 2026, the overtime pay requirement kicks in after 48 hours. Then in 2027, and beyond, agricultural employers would be required to pay an overtime pay rate to employees that work more than 40 hours in a workweek.
Did you know there is a bird with talons larger than grizzly bear claws? The Harpy Eagle’s back talons can reach lengths of 5 inches, which is larger than a grizzly bear’s claws which reach lengths of around 4 inches. Thankfully, the Harpy Eagle is not usually found in the United States, they are traditionally found in the rainforests of Central and South America.
The variety and extent of the animal kingdom can be a good analogy when we talk about the scope and variability of agricultural and resource law. “Ag law” isn’t in and of itself a core area of law, at least not an area of law taught in most law schools across the country. Those core areas of law are traditionally contracts, constitutional, tort, property, and a few others. But ag law includes most, if not all, of the core legal subjects. This includes property law, tax law, tort law, international law, intellectual property law, environmental law, contracts, business, labor and employment, and others. This week’s edition of the Ag Law Harvest shows you how diverse ag law really is. We review some legislation moving in parts of the country that deal with tax law, property law, and administrative law. We also review Federal regulations and court cases that address food law, trademark law, and antitrust law.
Florida introduces legislation to protect farmers’ preferential tax benefits amid agritourism boom. Florida’s legislature is hard at work to ensure the success of Florida’s agriculture and agritourism industries. Recently, Florida’s legislature introduced Senate Bill 1186 and House Bill 717. The purpose of both bills is to promote Florida’s agritourism industry and protect farmers when it comes to land classification, taxation, and regulation. Both pieces of legislation look to:
- Eliminate duplicate regulatory authority over agritourism by preventing local government from enacting regulations that prohibit, restrict, or otherwise limit an agritourism activity from taking place on land classified as agricultural land.
- Prevent land from being classified “non-agricultural” simply because an agritourism activity takes places on the land, so long as the agritourism activity is taking place on a bona fide farm.
- Implement a hybrid property taxation scheme which allows the buildings and other structures used for agritourism activities to be assessed at just value and added to the agriculturally assessed value of the land.
Both bills are currently making their way through their respective chamber’s committees and should be voted on soon.
Michigan looking to pass legislation to reduce fines for family farmers that do not report accidental workplace deaths to the state. The Michigan Senate recently passed a substitute for House Bill 4031, which is focused on reducing the fine incurred by family farms for not reporting the death of a family member within eight hours. Under current Michigan law, a family farm must report any fatality to the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration within eight hours or face a fine of at least $5,000, which is exactly what happened to the Eisenmann family in 2019. The Eisenmann family ran a family farm and was fined $12,000 after Keith Eisenmann fell to his death while repairing a barn roof. The bill seeks to reduce the fine for families that are grieving the unexpected loss of a loved one. Although a family farm will still be required to report the accidental work-related death of a loved one within eight hours, if a family fails to do so, the substitute bill drastically reduces the penalty. The original bill passed Michigan’s House of Representatives late last year, but the substitute bill passed by the Michigan Senate clarifies the definition of family farm. The substitute bill now goes back to the House of Representatives for approval.
Bioengineered food standard now in effect. January 1st marked the first day of compliance for the Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (the “Standard”). The Standard requires food manufacturers, importers, and certain retailers to disclose to consumers that foods are or may be bioengineered. The Standard defines bioengineered foods as “those that contain detectable genetic material that has been modified through certain lab techniques and cannot be created through conventional breeding or found in nature.” The Agricultural Marketing Service has created a list of bioengineered foods to identify the crops or foods that are available in a bioengineered form. For more information on the Bioengineered Food Disclosure Statement visit https://www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/be.
A bite into the cheesier side of trademark law. Last month, a federal court in Virginia decided on a dispute between European and American cheesemakers. The dispute arose over whether the term “Gruyere” should only be used to identify cheeses produced in the Gruyère region of France and Switzerland or whether the term can be used generically to describe a type of cheese, regardless of where the cheese is produced. The Plaintiffs, two European business groups, filed an application with the United States Patent Trademark Office (“USPTO”) to register “Gruyere” as a certification mark under 15 U.S.C. § 1127 which would only allow cheesemakers to use the term “Gruyere” if the cheese came from the Gruyère region. The U.S. Dairy Export Council and others (“Defendants”) filed an opposition to Plaintiffs’ application with the Trademark Trials and Appeals Board (“TTAB”). The TTAB found the term “Gruyere” to be generic term used to describe a type of cheese, not a cheese’s origin. Plaintiffs’ then filed suit in a federal court in Virginia. The federal court held that the “Gruyere” term had become a generic term to describe a type of cheese and failed to find the term worthy of trademark protection. The court reasoned that although the term “Gruyere” may have once been understood to indicate where a cheese came from, over time “Gruyere” became a generic term to describe a type of cheese. The court noted the term “Gruyere” has become generic overtime because: (1) U.S. regulations allow the use of the term “Gruyere” regardless of where the cheese is produced, (2) there is widespread sale and import of Gruyere cheese that is produced outside the Gruyère region, and (3) “Gruyere” is commonly used in dictionaries, media communications, and cheese industry events to describe a type of cheese without regards to where the cheese is produced. Plaintiffs have since appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which means we still have a gooey situation on our hands.
USDA and Department of Justice announce commitment to protect farmers against unfair anticompetitive practices. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) and the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) each announced their shared commitment to enforcing federal competition laws that are aimed at protecting farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural producers from unfair, anticompetitive practices. In continuing their commitment to enforcing such laws, the agencies released a statement of principles and commitments which include:
- Farmers, ranchers, and other producers and growers deserve the benefits of free and fair competition. The DOJ and USDA are therefore prioritizing matters impacting competition in agriculture.
- The agencies will develop an accessible, confidential process for agricultural producers to submit complaints about potential violations of the antitrust laws and the Packers and Stockyards Act.
- Increased cooperation between the agencies to enforce the laws that protect agricultural producers and to identify areas where Congress can help modernize rules and regulations.
As we have seen over the past few months, the federal government is keen on preventing the consolidation of the agricultural industry in order promote fair and equal competition. The announced commitments and principles demonstrate the government’s continued dedication to cracking down on unfair practices.
Did you know that a group of ferrets is called a business? Ironically, we are in the business of ferreting out agricultural and resource law issues and providing you updates. This edition of the Ag Law Harvest provides an update on recent court decisions from across the country that deal with the right to farm, food labeling, and conditional use permits for solar gardens.
Right to Farm Act upheld in North Carolina. Earlier this month, a three-judge panel on the North Carolina Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of North Carolina’s right to farm law. In 1979, the North Carolina legislature enacted the Right to Farm Act (the “Act”). In 2017 and 2018 the North Carolina legislature amended the Act by passing House Bill 467 and Senate Bill 711 (collectively referred to as “the Amendments”). The Amendments sought to clarify and strengthen North Carolina’s right to farm law. The Plaintiffs argued that the Amendments violated North Carolina’s equivalent of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause and that the Act exceeded the scope of North Carolina’s police power. The Court of Appeals disagreed. The Court recognized North Carolina’s interest in promoting and preserving agriculture and that North Carolina has the authority to regulate such an interest. The Court found that the Act’s limitation on potential nuisance claims against those engaged in agriculture, forestry, and other related operations helps to protect North Carolina’s interest, and encourages North Carolina’s goal to encourage the availability and continued “production of food, fiber, and other products.” The Plaintiffs also argued that the Amendments were “private laws” to specifically protect the swine industry in violation of North Carolina’s Constitution. The Court found, however, that the Act and the Amendments are laws of general applicability that apply to all agricultural and forestry operations, not just swine producers. Lastly, the Plaintiffs argued that because the language in House Bill 467 limited the amount of compensation that can be recovered in a nuisance action against agricultural and forestry operations, the Plaintiffs’ right to a trial by jury had been impaired and/or abolished. The Court ruled, however, that North Carolina has the authority to “define the circumstances under which a remedy is legally cognizable and those under which it is not.” The Court found that there are many examples where compensation and remedies are limited within North Carolina law and that House Bill 467 did not “impair nor abolish the right to a jury trial.”
Where is the cacao? A California man (“Plaintiff”) is suing Costco Wholesale Corporation (“Costco”) for allegedly mislabeling Costco’s “Chocolate Almond Dipped Vanilla Ice Cream Bars” (the “Product”). Plaintiff argues that because of the Product’s packaging and name, he expected the Product’s chocolate would have been predominately derived from cacao beans. Plaintiff asserts that chocolate is defined by the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) and California law “as prepared from ground roasted cacao bean” and that it must be “made chiefly from cacao beans with a small amount of optional ingredients.” Based on this definition, Plaintiff claims that Costco’s packaging is misleading because the Product’s chocolate contains mostly vegetable oils and small amounts of ingredients derived from cacao beans. In his Complaint, Plaintiff argues that federal regulations require Costco to label the Product as “milk chocolate and vegetable oil coating” rather than just “chocolate.” However, the court found that neither of Plaintiff’s cited regulations support a viable theory of liability against Costco. First, the court could not find Plaintiff’s definition of chocolate anywhere in the Code of Federal Regulations. Secondly, the court held that there are no federal regulations that require a certain amount of cacao bean ingredients as opposed to vegetable oils to be used in “chocolate” and that there is no language mandating the labeling of Costco’s Product as “milk chocolate and vegetable oil coating almond dipped ice cream bars.” The court also dismissed Plaintiff’s claim that Costco engaged in consumer deception with its Product’s label. The court found that a reasonable consumer would not have been deceived by the Product’s label and that if there were any questions about the ingredients of the Product, a consumer could have resolved those questions by looking for the ingredients list on the back of the Product’s packaging.
Conditional use permits at the center of the Minnesota’s “solar system.” Move over Sun because conditional use permits are at the center of attention in Minnesota, for now. The Minnesota Court of Appeals has recently ruled against a county’s decision to deny two conditional use permits to build solar gardens in McLeod County, Minnesota. Two subsidiary companies of Nokomis Energy LLC (“Plaintiff”) each applied for a conditional use permit (“CUP”) to build separate, one-megawatt solar energy facilities. McLeod County considered the two CUP applications at public hearings. Two neighboring landowners expressed concerns about stray voltage and the number of fetal deaths among their livestock. The landowners claimed that the number of fetal deaths increased after other solar facilities were constructed nearby. Plaintiff did not deny that solar gardens can produce stray voltage but proposed to alleviate those concerns by hiring only licensed professionals and to allow third-party oversight during construction. Plaintiff also offered to conduct stray voltage testing before and after construction and indicated that it would accept any conditions set forth by county officials. The county, however, denied both applications on the basis that the proposed sites are “prime farmland” and because the stray voltage would negatively affect livestock. The court rejected the county’s assessment. First, the court held that preserving prime farmland is not a sufficient legal basis for denying a CUP. Second, the court ruled that the county cannot deny a CUP without first considering whether any proposed conditions would eliminate any concerns about the application. Here, the court found that McLeod County’s failure to address Plaintiff’s proposals to eliminate the stray voltage concerns amounts to an unjust denial of Plaintiff’s CUPs.
Thanks for reading and Happy New Year!
"Farm Office Live" returns this summer as an opportunity for you to get the latest outlook and updates on ag law, farm management, ag economics, farm business analysis, and other related issues. Targeted to farmers and agri-business stakeholders, our specialists digest the latest news and issues and present it in an easy-to-understand format.
The live broadcast is presented monthly. In months where two shows are scheduled, one will be held in the morning and one in the evening. Each session is recorded and posted on the OSU Extension Farm Office YouTube channel for later viewing.
|July 23, 2021||10:00 - 11:30 am||December 17, 2021||10:00 - 11:30 am|
|August 27, 2021||10:00 - 11:30 am||January 19, 2022||7:00 - 8:30 pm|
|September 23, 2021||10:00 - 11:30 am||January 21, 2022||10:00 - 11:30 am|
|October 13, 2021||7:00 - 8:30 pm||Februrary 16, 2022||7:00 - 8:30 pm|
|October 15, 2021||10:00 - 11:30 am||February 18, 2022||10:00 - 11:30 am|
|November 17, 2021||7:00 - 8:30 pm||March 16, 2022||7:00 - 8:30 pm|
|November 19, 2021||10:00 - 11:30 am||March 18, 2022||10:00 - 11:30 am|
|December 15, 2021||7:00 - 8:30 pm||April 20, 2022||7:00 - 8:30 pm|
Topics we will discuss in upcoming webinars include:
- Coronavirus Food Assitance Program (CFAP)
- Legislative Proposals and Accompanying Tax Provisions
- Outlook on Crop Input Costs and Profit Margins
- Outlook on Cropland Values and Cash Rents
- Tax Issues That May Impact Farm Businesses
- Legal Trends
- Legislative Updates
- Farm Business Management and Analysis
- Farm Succession & Estate Planning
To register or to view a previous "Farm Office Live," please visit https://go.osu.edu/farmofficelive. You will receive a reminder with your personal link to join each month.
The Farm Office is a one-stop shop for navigating the legal and economic challenges of agricultural production. For more information visit https://farmoffice.osu.edu or contact Julie Strawser at email@example.com or call 614.292.2433
Tags: Farm Office Live, farm management, Farm Succession, Estate Planning, Farm Business, Dairy Production, Farm Tax, Agricultural Law, Resource Law
When does the business of hosting weddings on a farm qualify as “agritourism” under Ohio law? That was the question faced by Ohio’s Second District Court of Appeals in a legal battle between Caesarscreek Township and the owners of a farm property in Greene County. The answer to the question is important because local zoning can’t prohibit the hosting of weddings and similar events if they fall under Ohio’s definition of “agritourism.” Those that don’t qualify as “agritourism” are subject to local zoning prohibitions and regulations. According to the court’s recent decision, the determination depends largely upon the facts of the situation, but merely taking place on an agricultural property does not automatically qualify a wedding or event as “agritourism.”
The case regards the Lusardis, who own a 13.5 acre property in Caesarscreek Township containing a pole barn and outbuilding, a one-acre pond, several acres of woods, and an eight acre hayfield on which the Lusardis had produced hay for several years. Their plan was to offer corn mazes, hayrides and celebratory events like weddings and receptions on the property. To do so, the Lusardis had to demonstrate to the township’s Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) that their activities fit within Ohio’s definition of “agritourism” and thus must be allowed according to Ohio law. That definition in ORC 901.80 states:
“Agritourism means an agriculturally related educational, entertainment, historical, cultural, or recreational activity, including you-pick operations or farm markets, conducted on a farm that allows or invites members of the general public to observe, participate in or enjoy that activity.”
In applying the definition of agritourism to its local zoning, Caesarscreek Township requires an agritourism provider to explain how the “educational, entertainment, historical, cultural or recreational” activities it plans to offer are “agriculturally related” to the property and the surrounding agricultural community. In their agritourism application with the township, the Lusardis explained that guests could use the property to celebrate an agriculturally themed event, enjoy the scenery, hay fields and woods, learn about plants and wildlife, have bonfires, play corn hole, fish, and get married outside, in the woods, or in the hayfield. The township zoning inspector, however, testified to the BZA that he did not see a relationship between weddings and receptions and the Lusardi property itself. A wedding or reception would not have a “basic relationship” to the existing agricultural use of the property or the surrounding area and the agricultural use of the property was incidental, at best, to the wedding and reception business, argued the zoning inspector.
The township BZA agreed with the zoning inspector. It determined that the Lusardi’s corn maze and hayride activities qualified as agritourism, but held that any celebratory events such as weddings would not be “agriculturally related” to the property and thus did not fit within the definition of agritourism and could not take place on the property. The Lusardis appealed the BZA’s decision to the Greene County Court of Common Pleas, whose duty under Ohio law was to determine whether the BZA’s conclusion was “unconstitutional, illegal, arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable or unsupported by the preponderance of substantial, reliable, and probative evidence on the whole record.” The common pleas court found the BZA’s conclusion reasonable and upheld the decision. The BZA’s determination that weddings don’t bear a general relevance to agriculture was understandable, whereas corn mazes and hay rides do bear a reasonable relationship to agriculture, the court stated.
The Lusardis appealed the common pleas court decision to the Ohio Court of Appeals. Its duty in reviewing the case was to determine whether the common pleas court had abused its discretion by making a judgment on a question of law that is “unreasonable, arbitrary or unconscionable.” The appellate court concluded that the common pleas court had not abused its discretion by affirming the BZA decision. Agreeing that it was reasonable for the BZA to conclude that the celebratory events were not sufficiently related to the agricultural property, the court stated that “just because an activity is on agricultural property does not make it “agritourism” and is not, by itself, enough to make the activity “agriculturally related.”
The “what does ‘agriculturally related’ mean?” question is one we’ve pondered since the Ohio legislature created the definition of agritourism in 2016. An important rule to draw from this case is that the answer must be made on a case-by-case basis. The Lusardis asked the court of appeals to decide whether any celebratory event on an agricultural property would be agriculturally related and would therefore constitute “agritourism” as a matter of law, but the court refused to do so. “Whether a particular activity constitutes “agritourism” is an issue that shades to gray quite quickly,” stated the court. “Given the great variety of factual situations, we decline to rule on whether celebratory events constitute “agritourism” as a matter of law.”
Also noteworthy is the court’s attention to the BZA’s analysis of the activities that were to take place on the Lusardi property. The BZA pointed to a lack of evidence that any crops or flowers grown on the property would be used in the events. Also remiss was evidence that the only agricultural crop grown on the property—hay—was somehow connected to the celebratory events that would take place. The court observed that these evidentiary flaws supported the BZA’s conclusion that the Lusardis were proposing an event venue with an incidental theme rather than an agricultural activity with an incidental event.
Wedding barn issues have been a cause of controversy in recent years. The Lusardi v. Caesarscreek Township decision follows an Ohio Supreme Court case earlier this year regarding whether a wedding barn fit within the agricultural exemption from zoning for buildings and structures used “primarily for vinting and selling wine.” In that case, the Supreme Court determined that making and selling wine was the primary use of the barn and that weddings and events were incidental, yet were related to the production because event guests had to purchase the wine produced at the farm. Taken together, these cases illustrate the importance Ohio’s agricultural zoning exemption places on production activities. Where agricultural goods are being produced and sold, additional incidental activities such as celebratory events that are related to agricultural production will likely fall under the agricultural exemption. But as the Lusardi case illustrates, local zoning may prohibit celebratory events that don’t have a clear connection to agricultural production and instead appear to be the primary rather than incidental use of the property.
Read the case of Lusardi v. Caesarscreek Township Board of Zoning Appeals here.
Despite the fact that “pumpkin spice” everything is back in stores, it is still summer, and if you’re anything like me, you’re still dealing with weeds. In fact, we have been receiving many questions about noxious weeds lately. This blog post is meant to be a refresher about what you should do if noxious weeds sprout up on your property.
What are noxious weeds?
The Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) is in charge of designating “prohibited noxious weeds.” The list may change from time to time, but currently, noxious weeds include:
- Shatter cane (Sorghum bicolor)
- Russian thistle (Salsola Kali var. tenuifolia).
- Johnsongrass (Sorghum halepense ).
- Wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa).
- Grapevines (Vitis spp.), when growing in groups of one hundred or more and not pruned, sprayed, cultivated, or otherwise maintained for two consecutive years.
- Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense ).
- Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum).
- Cressleaf groundsel (Senecio glabellus).
- Musk thistle (Carduus nutans).
- Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria).
- Mile-A-Minute Weed (Polygonum perfoliatum).
- Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum).
- Apple of Peru (Nicandra physalodes).
- Marestail (Conyza canadensis)
- Kochia (Bassia scoparia).
- Palmer amaranth (Amaranthus palmeri).
- Kudzu (Pueraria montana var. lobata).
- Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum).
- Yellow Groove Bamboo (Phyllostachys aureasculata), when the plant has spread from its original premise of planting and is not being maintained.
- Field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis).
- Heart-podded hoary cress (Lepidium draba sub. draba).
- Hairy whitetop or ballcress Lepidium appelianum).
- Perennial sowthistle (Sonchus arvensis).
- Russian knapweed (Acroptilon repens).
- Leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula).
- Hedge bindweed (Calystegia sepium).
- Serrated tussock (Nassella trichotoma).
- Columbus grass (Sorghum x almum).
- Musk thistle (Carduus nutans).
- Forage Kochia (Bassia prostrata).
- Water Hemp (Amaranthus tuberculatus).
The list of noxious weeds can be found in the Ohio Administrative Code section 901:5-37-01. In addition to this list, Ohio State has a guidebook that will help you identify noxious weeds in Ohio, which is available here. It may be helpful to familiarize yourself with the weeds in the book, so you can be on the lookout for noxious weeds on your property.
When am I responsible for noxious weeds?
The Ohio Revised Code addresses noxious weeds in different parts of the code. When it comes to noxious weeds on the property of private individuals, there are two scenarios that may apply: noxious weeds on private property, and noxious weeds in line fence rows.
Noxious weeds on your property
If your property is located outside of a municipality, a neighbor or another member of the public can inform the township trustees in writing that there are noxious weeds on your property. If this happens, the township trustees must then turn around and notify you about the existence of noxious weeds. After receiving a letter from the trustees, you must either destroy the weeds or show the township trustees why there is no need for doing so. If you do not take one of these actions within five days of the trustees’ notice, the township trustees must cause the weeds to be cut or destroyed, and the county auditor will assess the costs for destroying the weeds against your real property taxes. If your land is in a municipality, similar laws apply, but you would be dealing with the legislative authority, like the city council, instead of township trustees.
What if you rent out your land out to be farmed or otherwise? Are you responsible for noxious weeds on your property in that situation? The answer is probably. The law states that the board of township trustees “shall notify the owner, lessee, agent, or tenant having charge of the land” that they have received information about noxious weeds on the property (emphasis added). Furthermore, the law says that the “person notified” shall cut or destroy the weeds (or have them cut or destroyed). In all likelihood, if you own the land, you are going to be the person who is notified by the trustees about the presence of weeds. If you rent out your property to be farmed or otherwise, you may want to include who is responsible for noxious weeds in the language of the lease.
Noxious weeds in the fence row
The “line fence law” or “partition fence law” in Ohio requires landowners in unincorporated areas to cut all noxious weeds, brush, briers and thistles within four feet and in the corners of a line fence. A line fence (or partition fence) is a fence that is on the boundary line between two properties. If you fail to keep your side of the fence row clear of noxious weeds and other vegetation, Ohio law provides a route for adjacent landowners concerned about the weeds. First, an adjacent landowner must request that you clear the fence row of weeds and must allow you ten days to do so. If the weeds still remain after ten days, the complaining landowner may notify the township trustees of the situation. Then, the township trustees must view the property and determine whether there is sufficient reason to remove weeds and vegetation from the fence row. If they determine that the weeds should be removed, the township trustees may hire someone to clear the fence row. Once again, if this occurs, the county auditor will assess the costs of destruction on your property taxes.
Being aware of noxious weeds is key.
As a landowner, it is really important for you to keep an eye out for noxious weeds on your property. If you keep on top of the weeds, cutting them or otherwise destroying them as they grow, it will certainly make your life a lot easier. You will avoid awkward conversations with neighbors, letters from your township trustees, and extra charges on your property taxes. Additionally, you will help to prevent the harm that noxious weeds may cause to crops, livestock, and ecosystems in general.
To learn more about Ohio’s noxious weed laws, you can access our law bulletin on the subject here. While the bulletin addresses the responsibilities of landowners, it also goes beyond the scope of this blog post, addressing weeds on roadways, railroads, and public lands, as well as how to respond if your neighbor has noxious weeds on their property. Additionally, the bulletin has a helpful section of “frequently asked questions” regarding noxious weeds.
Who knew wedding barns could lead us to the Ohio Supreme Court? Such is the case for a longstanding controversy over a barn in Medina County. Litchfield Township so opposed the use of the barn for weddings that it initiated a lawsuit and eventually appealed the case to Ohio’s highest court. In a unanimous decision issued today, the court ruled against the township and in favor of the wedding barn.
The case revolves around Forever Blueberry Barn, LLC (“Blueberry Barn”), whose owners built a barn in 2015 in Litchfield Township. The owners’ plans were to host weddings and other social events in the barn. The owners believed their use qualified the barn as "agriculture" under Ohio’s broad “agricultural exemption” from zoning authority. The township thought differently, and claimed that the use was not agriculture and instead violated the township’s residential district zoning regulations. The township sought an injunction to prevent weddings and events from taking place in the barn.
The Medina County Court of Common Pleas issued the injunction against Blueberry Barn, agreeing that the barn did not qualify as agriculture under the agricultural exemption. But the court later withdrew the injunction upon receiving evidence that the owners of Blueberry Barn had planted grape vines on the property. Doing so constituted “viticulture," which is within the definition of “agriculture” for purposes of the agricultural exemption, the court determined.
On an appeal by the township, however, the Ninth District Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court should have examined whether the barn itself was being “used primarily for the purpose of vinting and selling wine.” Ohio’s agricultural exemption prevents townships from using zoning authority to prohibit the use of land for “agriculture,” which includes viticulture, and also states that townships can’t prohibit the use of buildings or structures “used primarily for vinting and selling wine and that are located on land any part of which is used for viticulture.…” The appellate court said that a determination must be made at the trial level whether the wedding barn structure was “used primarily” for wine vinting and sales.
At its second trial court hearing, Blueberry Barn brought forth evidence that it produced and stored wine and winemaking equipment in the barn. Blueberry Barn also explained to the court that persons could only rent the wedding barn if they purchased wine from Blueberry Barn. Based on this evidence, the trial court concluded that the primary use of the barn was for vinting and selling wine. On a second appeal by the township, the Ninth District Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court’s judgment. The township appealed yet again, this time to Ohio’s Supreme Court.
The issue before the Court focused on one word in the agricultural exemption: primarily. In order for the agricultural exemption to apply, the wedding barn must be used primarily for vinting and selling wine. The agricultural exemption does not define the word primarily, so the Court looked to the ordinary dictionary meaning of the word “primary,” which is “of first rank, importance, or value.” The Court reminded us that whether a use is primary is a question of fact to be determined by the trial court.
The township argued that the trial court’s conclusion that vinting and selling wine was the primary use of the barn was incorrect, because only 4% of the barn’s physical space involved vinting and selling wine. The Supreme Court disagreed with such a conclusion, and clarified that “primary” does not mean “majority.” The Court stated that the amount of space or time devoted to vinting and selling wine would not determine whether the use is “primary.” It would not be unreasonable for a new winery producing limited quantities of wine in its early stages of production to use its barn space for other purposes, reasoned the Court.
One never knows when the Buckeyes will pop up in a conversation or even a court case, and it happened in this one. In a teaching moment, the Supreme Court used Ohio Stadium to illustrate its interpretation of the word “primary.” It would be hard to argue that football is not the primary use of Ohio Stadium even if the stadium holds 20 events a year and only 7 of those events are for Buckeye football, the Court explained. The same concept applies to determining the primary use of a barn. Additionally, the Court pointed to the fact that only those who purchased wine from Blueberry Barn could use the facility for weddings or events as further support for the trial court’s factual determination that wedding rentals contributed to the barn’s primary use of vinting and selling wine. The Court affirmed the ruling in favor of Blueberry Barn, bringing an end to the six-year wedding barn controversy.
I’ve taught zoning law and Ohio’s agricultural exemption for many years. One question I’ve received hundreds of times is this: how do we know which use of a structure is “primary”? The Court’s decision today sheds light on this seemingly minor but highly relevant question. The answer is one that helps us interpret not only the “used primarily for vinting and selling wine” language in the agricultural exemption, but also relates to additional provisions that apply to “agritourism” structures. Several references in the agricultural exemption prohibit zoning regulation over buildings “used primarily” for agritourism. When next asked what “primary” means, I can now refer to the new “primary-use test” created today by the Supreme Court: primary does not mean majority, but does mean of first rank, importance, or value. That’s a primary contribution to Ohio’s agricultural zoning law.
Read the Ohio Supreme Court's decision in Litchfield Twp. Bd. Of Trustees v. Forever Blueberry Barn, L.L.C. here.