Can “Wedding Barns” and Local Zoning Co-Exist? Ohio Supreme Court Takes a Closer Look

While the coronavirus pandemic may have put a temporary halt on large-scale weddings as we know them, believe it or not, they will resume post-pandemic. When they do, many will take place in an increasingly popular venue – the ubiquitous “wedding barn.” These popular wedding-day destinations blend picture-perfect, rural scenery with functionally large spaces against the backdrop of a rustic country barn.

However, wedding barns also often come into conflict with local zoning officials doing their job, particularly when family-owned barns are repeatedly used as a commercial wedding venue and business, but the property on which the barns are located is not zoned appropriately. This begs the question – can wedding barns and local zoning regulations ever live together in peace? The Ohio Supreme Court recently chimed in, issuing a decision that appears to set a fairly easy standard for wedding barn businesses to satisfy a statutory zoning exemption.

In Litchfield Twp. Bd. of Trustees v. Forever Blueberry Barn, LLC, Ohio Supreme Court Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-1508, a property owner owned a barn in a residential zoning district. The owner ran a wedding venue out of the barn and was eventually sued by the township for operating a commercial business on residentially zoned land. Essentially, the township posited that the owner was legally restricted from operating a commercial farm venue without operating an actual farm.

After initial pushback from the township, the owner had established a vineyard on the property, turning to a small viticulture business in order for the property to satisfy an agricultural zoning exemption under Ohio law. Per Ohio Revised Code 519.21(A), township zoning officials may not use zoning regulations to prohibit the use of land for agricultural purposes, including “buildings and structures that are used primarily for vinting and selling wine,” (emphasis added) and no zoning permits are required for such buildings.

Taking the owner to court, Litchfield Township disagreed that this use of the barn, which accounted for only 4% of the barn’s total usage, exempted the barn from zoning regulations under R.C. 519.21(A). The township’s main argument was that the small business operation did not satisfy the exemption’s requirement that the barn was used “primarily” for agricultural purposes. Forever Blueberry Barn argued that because it hosted a viticulture business on the property and made renters buy some of the wine made on site as a condition of using the property, the wedding barn was legally exempt from zoning and satisfied the exemption.

The Ohio Supreme Court ultimately agreed with the owner of Blueberry Barn. Reviewing the agricultural exemption to local zoning, the Court reasoned that “primary use” does not necessarily mean the “majority use.” Instead, this determination is to be made on a case-by-case basis. The Court agreed with the trial court’s ruling that, because Blueberry Barn not only made and stored wine on the premises, but also required renters using the barn as a wedding venue to purchase the wine, a reasonable trier of fact could determine that the barn’s primary use was for the vinting and selling of wine.

With the Litchfield decision, a relatively low threshold has been set for wedding barn operators to satisfy the agricultural exemption to zoning. Although the timing of when we might all gather together and dance to the familiar sounds of “YMCA,” “Love Shack” and “Shout” remains uncertain, one thing is clear – wedding barns are not going away anytime soon.