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.
Can Ohio townships use their zoning authority to regulate outdoor signs on agricultural property? This is a question I've received many times. I can now refer townships to legal guidance provided by the Ohio Attorney General in an opinion issued October 20, 2009 (OAG 2009-041). The OAG opinion walks us through an analysis of the persistently problematic Ohio Revised Code section 519.21, commonly referred to as the 'agricultural zoning exemption,' which states that townships may not use their zoning 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," with a few exceptions.
The OAG opinion provides the following explanation of how the agricultural exemption applies to an outdoor sign on agricultural property:
"1. Pursuant to R.C. 519.21(A), officials of a township that has not adopted a limited home rule government under R.C. Chapter 504 may not regulate the location, height,bulk, or size of a fee-standing outdoor sign that is located on a lot greater than five acres and deemed to be a structure when the use of the sign relates directly and immediately to the use for agricultural purposes of the lot on which the sign is located.
2. The use of a free-standing outdoor sign is directly and immediately related to the use for agricultural purposes of the lot on which the sign is located when the sign advertises the sale of agricultural products derived from the lot on which the sign is located.
3. The use of a free-standing outdoor sign is not directly and immediately related to the use for agricultural purposes of the lot on which the sign is located when the sign advertises the sale of (1) agricultural products not derived from the lot on which the sign is located or (2) things other than agricultural products.
4. Township officials may consider any information or facts they deem necessary and relevant in order to determine in a reasonable manner whether the use of a free-standing outdoor sign is directly and immediately related to the use for agricultural purposes of the lot on which the sign is located or an attempt to promote an activity that is not conducted in conjunction with, and secondary to, the production of the agricultural products derived from the lot on which the sign is located."
Note that the opinion pertains only to townships that have not adopted a limited home rule form of government--most of our townships have not taken the action necessary to adopt limited home rule powers. The opinion also notes that the 'farm market exception' may provide townships with limited authority to regulate outdoor signs, and that a different outcome could result for regulation of lots less than five acres in a subdivision setting.
The OAG's guidance is consistent with the history of the agricultural exemption and the many court cases that have interpreted the law. When the Ohio legislature gave townships zoning authority over 50 years ago, it tried to ensure that townships would not "zone out" all agricultural land uses in rural areas. The legislature's foresight on the issue of agricultural land use was remarkable, but their statutory language has yielded uncertainty and confusion. The OAG's opinion attempts to clarify some of that language, but the opinion forces townships into a careful analysis of each individual situation that may prove difficult and problematic for zoning officials.
The opinion itself recognizes the challenges posed by a "mixed use" situation, where the sign includes multiple products or partial products--some that derive from the property and others that do not, or promotes an activity related to the property's agricultural use. The Attorney General doesn't resolve this problem, but defers to the townships on these types of situations. The opinion states that when addressing these situations, township officials may consider "any information or facts they deem necessary and relevant in order to determine in a reasonable manner whether the use of an advertising device is drectly and immediately related to the use for agricultural purposes of the lot on which the device is located," or conversely is an "attempt to promote an activity that is not conducted in conjunction with and secondary to the production of the agricultural prouducts derived from the lot." Once again, township zoning officials may find themselves in a state of uncertainty over how or whether to regulate a land use on an agricultural property.
Read OAG opinion 2009-041 at http://www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov/Legal/Opinions.