Court of Appeals confirms decision not to allow weddings on hay farm as “agritourism”

By:Peggy Kirk Hall, Associate Professor, Agricultural & Resource Law Wednesday, October 07th, 2020
Wedding sign

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.

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