New uses are always impacting how a township applies or amends its regulations. Numerous townships have seen an emerging trend where historic agricultural barns of the past are converted to provide a new venue for weddings, conferences, and parties. Since these barns are often located in the rural areas of townships, the new commercial operation of event barns and wedding barns are occurring in township zoning districts where local regulations often do not address these activities. Event barns and wedding barns have both positive and negative benefits. While it creates an environment for two people to tie the knot, it can disturb adjoining property owners with noise, excess traffic, trespassing, and unsafe drinking conditions. In this E-letter we focus on this new emerging use and how townships should consider addressing them.
Growing Trend in Agricultural Wedding Venues
Repurposing old structures has seen an explosion of interest in recent years—whether historic homes or grand former public buildings. Old agricultural barns and structures are no exception and are attractive to both rural residents looking to host events in familiar territory or to urban dwellers seeking the comfort and natural beauty found in the wide open spaces of a countryside setting. The expansive interest in barns and rural settings as a venue has created a diversity of demand for old barns from entrepreneurs converting old barns to farmers sprucing up an old barn and allowing customers a venue and the ability to interact with their livestock.
In part, the emerging trend is the result of increased wedding costs. Many banquet halls and urban venues have costly rates and stringent requirements on preferred vendors. On the other hand, wedding barn operators provide more flexibility at a discount. There also is a keen interest in couples looking for rural settings to hold a ceremony and reception in one peaceful location. This demand has allowed old barns converted into an event barn to rent them for as much as $10,000 per night.
Although event barns bring welcome revenue and exposure to rural areas, the events held can often be disruptive to adjacent uses. These disruptions include late night music, live bands, light pollution, increased traffic, late night traffic, inebriated revelers, and even trespassers who wander about the barn site and inadvertently onto adjacent farming properties. Neighboring property owners often are not thrilled with this change to their former weekend peace and tranquility.
Yet the event barn operators also have expectations regarding the use of their property. These operators may seek use variances to expand a residential use, or may argue their event barn is an accessory use, or they may claim their use is consistent with an existing zoning classification.
Event barns are typically located within agricultural or residential districts. An old barn is repurposed into an assembly hall for commercial purposes. When local zoning regulations do not clearly provide for such use, some owners may seek use variances to permit conversion of the barn from a farming operation to a commercial operation. This poses a problem since use variances are disfavored under the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act. Zoning boards of appeal have clear authority to issue nonuse variances. MCL 125.3604(8). In most jurisdictions, however, a use variance will not be an available option. In a limited number of communities, the zoning ordinance may still permit such variances, but it must be explicitly stated in the zoning ordinance and may be revoked by the township board. See MCL 125.3604(9), (11).
Conversion of an old barn (or any agricultural building) also presents safety issues that townships should consider. These barns were originally designed for specific agricultural uses. They may not have been constructed in compliance with the building code, as agricultural buildings are generally exempt under the state law from requiring a building permit for construction or alteration (unless there is a change of use). For that reason, although a barn may have enough square feet to house 300 guests, other safety requirements, such as fire suppression, electrical wiring and ingress-egress locations may not be sufficient for hosting these events. Any change in use for barns should be evaluated carefully to ensure that safety concerns are addressed.
Owners of old barns have also suggested that the use of the barn as an event venue is an accessory use to the other structures or uses of the property. Under this theory, many owners suggest that current regulations permit operation of the event barn without any further permitting. Generally, an accessory use is defined as an activity that is clearly incidental to, customarily found in conjunction with, subordinate to, and located on the same zoning lot as a permitted use.
Thus, for an owner to be correct, the event barn must be incidental to and customarily found in conjunction with the primary use. This is a difficult task for event barn operators. The mere fact this is an emerging trend suggests that wedding barns (as a commercial use) are not customarily incidental to single-family residences or even commercial farms (such as cash crop farms or livestock farms). In addition, the constant use of the wedding barn on a routine basis often overshadows the primary use, meaning it is not incidental or subordinate to the primary use.
The Michigan Court of Appeals recently held that event barns are not accessory uses within agricultural districts. In that case, the property owners established an event barn on agricultural property claiming the primary use of the property would be residential. Events included rehearsal dinners in addition to the weddings, which featured up to 300 people. Since the township zoning ordinance did not expressly permit such event barns (or a similar use in the district), the event barn operator claimed it was an accessory use. The Court found that “the barn’s use was not ‘subordinate to’ the property’s use as a single-family dwelling.” The Court recognized that “families occasionally host weddings and gatherings in their backyards and outbuildings,” but that the operation of an event barn was in excess of those smaller, less intense uses.
The Court of Appeals analysis pinpoints that the conversion of an old barn to a new commercial use quickly surpasses the primary use. The new use creates numerous issues that are not typical of a single-family dwelling, including noise and traffic, and the concentration of events to nights and weekends. As the Court recognized, such uses are commercial in nature and not authorized to operate within a township, unless the zoning ordinance specifically authorizes such. Webster Twp v Waitz, unpublished opinion per curiam of the Court of Appeals, issued June 7, 2016 (Docket No. 325008).
Another possibility is that a landowner will claim their event barn is “agritourism.” Agritourism is a new and growing industry on farms. As the term suggests, it involves leisure activities on farms and agricultural property. The issue with agritourism is there is not a standard accepted definition.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines agritourism as “the practice of touring agricultural areas to see farms and often to participate in farm activities,” and the American Heritage Dictionary defines it as “tourism in which tourists board at farms or in rural villages and experience farming at close hand.” Other farm organizations and associations suggest the term is much broader. This can pose issues with defining and regulating agritourism.
Townships that permit agritourism can face the question whether an event barn could be considered agritourism. For example, pumpkin patches and corn mazes occur during distinct growing seasons. These activities are closely related to agricultural products—pumpkins, corn, hay—which constitute at least some participation in farm activities. These are widely-accepted as agritourism. Unlike these uses, weddings or other events can be held year round, and often have no relationship to farm activities (other than the decorations). Even so, not all organizations agree that weddings are unrelated to agricultural, and some have concluded that weddings do constitute agritourism.
If a township permits agritourism or does not clearly define the scope of uses permitted within its jurisdiction, then landowners may rely on the unclarity in the term agritourism to suggest that event barns are permitted. In these situations, it is often recommended to clarify current regulations or determine whether adopting an appropriate regulation addressing agritourism and defining its scope should be done.
With the growing popularity of agritourism and rustic weddings, townships need to be aware how these new land uses may impact their communities. Event barns may cause unforeseen safety concerns, as well as impact adjacent uses. Townships should evaluate current regulations addressing agricultural uses and determine whether sufficient clarity exists to address event barns and agritourism.
Several possible solutions exist for a township concerned about agritourism generally and event barns specifically. Zoning ordinances generally prohibit those uses not specifically authorized. Thus, townships can amend zoning ordinances to explicitly allow the uses, specify the district in which the uses can operate, and provide the conditions under which the use will be required to operate. These amendments should consider whether agritourism is an appropriate term to be used in the ordinance and if so, whether the definition of agritourism clearly sets forth the type and intensity of the activities that the township is authorizing.
— Matt Kuschel
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Fahey Schultz Burzych Rhodes PLC, Your Township Attorneys, is a Michigan law firm specializing in the representation of Michigan townships. Our lawyers have more than 150 years of experience in township law, and have represented more than 150 townships across the state of Michigan. This publication is intended for our clients and friends. This communication highlights specific areas of law, and is not legal advice. The reader should consult an attorney to determine how the information applies to any specific situation.