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.
Here’s our latest gathering of agricultural law news that you may want to know:
Congress considers bankruptcy code changes with Family Farmer Relief Act of 2019. Senator Grassley and Representative Delgado introduced companion bills in their respective chambers of Congress that would modify the definition of “family farmer” in the federal bankruptcy code. The change would raise the operating debt limit for a family farmer from $3.2 million as listed in the U.S. Code to $10 million. Sometimes a small change can make a big difference. In chapter 12 of the bankruptcy code, a “family farmer” has special options that other chapters do not offer, such as the power to determine a long-term payment schedule and pay the present market value of the asset instead of the amount due on the loan. Many farmers had not been able to take advantage of the special bankruptcy provisions because of the low debt limit, but that may change. For more information on the bills, click HERE for S.897 and HERE for H.R. 2336.
Congress also considers changing the number of daily hours a driver may transport livestock. The Transporting Livestock Across America Safely Act would instruct the Secretary of Transportation to amend the rules governing drivers who transport certain animals. The changes would loosen restrictions on the number of hours that drivers may drive, and increase the types of activities that are exempt from counting toward the maximum time. Travel under 300 miles would be exempt from the hours of service (HOS) and electronic logging (ELD) requirements. Both chambers of Congress are considering this bill, and both companion bills are currently in committee. For more information on the bills and to learn about the changes proposed, click HERE for S.1255 and HERE for H.R. 487.
It’s not too late to submit comments to the FDA about its potential cannabidiol rulemaking. Electronic or written comments can be sent to the FDA until July 2nd, although the deadline to request to make an oral presentation or comment at tomorrow’s hearing has passed. Click HERE for more information from the Federal Register about the May 31st hearing and submitting comments.
Meatpackers face second class-action lawsuit, and R-CALF refiles. In our last edition of The Harvest, we talked about a new class-action lawsuit filed in Illinois federal court by a number of cattle ranchers, including R-CALF, against the nation’s largest meatpacking companies. Now, another lawsuit has been filed in Minnesota federal court also alleging a price fixing conspiracy by the meatpackers. The second lawsuit is being brought by a cattle futures trader, rather than a rancher. After the second suit was filed, R-CALF voluntarily dismissed its case in Illinois to refile it in Minnesota. This refiling allows the lawsuits to be heard by the same court.
Tyson sues the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. Tyson, which is named as a defendant in the class action suits we just mentioned, is a plaintiff in a case against the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. The company alleges that a FSIS inspector falsified an inspection of 4,622 hogs, which were intermingled with another 8,000 carcasses, at one of its Iowa facilities in 2018. The company claims that the false inspection required it to destroy all of the carcasses, and cost nearly $2.5 million in total losses and expenses. The complaint, which is available HERE, alleges four counts: negligence, negligent inspection, negligent retention, and negligent supervision. The lawsuit is based on the legal principle that an employer is liable for the actions of its employee.
Ohio Case Law Update
Plaintiff must prove that a defendant wedding barn operator’s breach of a duty caused her harm. Conrad Botzum Farmstead is a privately operated wedding and event barn located in the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area and on lease from the National Park Service. The plaintiff in the case was attending a wedding at the barn, where she broke her ankle while dancing on a wooden deck. The jury trial found that the barn operator was 51% at fault for her injuries, and awarded the plaintiff compensation. However, the barn operator appealed the decision and won. The Ohio Ninth District Court of Appeals found that the plaintiff did not introduce sufficient evidence to prove that any act or breach of duty by the barn operator actually or proximately caused the plaintiff to fall and break her ankle. The case raises standard questions of negligence, but it is worth noting in the Ag Law Blog because the court did not base its decision on Ohio’s agritourism immunity statute. The case is cited as Tyrrell v. Conrad Botzum Farmstead, 2019-Ohio-1874 (9th Dist.), and the decision is available HERE.
Ohio History Connection can use eminent domain to cancel Moundbuilders Country Club’s lease. A Licking County judge ruled in early May that the Ohio History Connection, formerly the Ohio Historical Society, can reclaim full ownership of land that it had leased to a country club. The Moundbuilders County Club has operated a golf course around prehistoric Native American earthworks for decades under a long-term lease with the state. The Ohio History Connection sought to have the lease terminated in order to give the public full access to the earthworks as part of a World Heritage List nomination. The judge viewed the request as sufficiently in the public interest to apply Ohio’s eminent domain laws.