A “primary” education: Ohio Supreme Court rules on wedding barn dispute

By:Peggy Kirk Hall, Associate Professor, Agricultural & Resource Law Tuesday, April 21st, 2020
Forever Blueberry Barn, LLC

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.

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