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Event Barn’s Mandatory Homegrown Wine Purchases Exempts It from Zoning Restrictions

Because a Medina County “event barn” mandated the purchase of wine made on its property as a condition for renting the barn, a township cannot prohibit the venue from operating in a residential district, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court found that the Litchfield Township trustees could not bar Forever Blueberry Barn from hosting weddings and other events even though the property is located in an area the township zoned as residential. Writing for the Court, Justice Melody J. Stewart stated Blueberry Barn proved that the primary use of the barn, and the events held there, are to facilitate the sale of its wine, which exempts the property from local zoning rules.

Township Sought to Block Event Space
Blueberry Barn is located on land zoned residential in Litchfield Township. Believing the barn’s purpose is for “barn weddings” and social gatherings, the Litchfield trustees asked the Medina County Common Pleas Court to issue an injunction preventing Blueberry Barn from hosting events.

The trial court initially granted the injunction, but lifted it after Blueberry Barn reported it had grown grapevines on the land and planned to sell wine from its grapes as a condition for renting the barn. Citing R.C. 519.21(A), the court found the property met the exemption under the law that prevents townships from prohibiting the use of buildings for vinting, or making, and selling wine on property as long as the property also cultivates grapes for winemaking

The township appealed the decision to the Ninth District Court of Appeals. The Ninth District ruled the trial court failed to prove whether the barn, as opposed to the land on which it is located, was being used “primarily for the purpose of vinting and selling wine.” It reversed the trial court’s decision and remanded the case for further proceedings.

After a hearing, the trial court determined that Blueberry Barn produced wine and stored it in the barn along with equipment to produce wine. It found that because the ability to rent the barn is dependent upon the purchase of Blueberry Barn’s wine, the court found the primary use was for vinting and selling wine. It ruled the township could not prevent its operation.

Litchfield appealed again, and in a 2-1 decision, the Ninth District affirmed the trial court’s decision. The dissenting judge maintained the evidence indicated Blueberry Barn exists “primarily as an event venue.”

Litchfield appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Court Examines Law Regarding Property Use
The Court’s opinion notes R.C. 519.02 to 519.25 bars townships from prohibiting  the use of any land for agricultural purposes, including buildings and structures that are used primarily for vinting and selling wine and that are located on land in which part of the land is used for grape-growing.

Justice Stewart explained that in the 2011 Terry v. Sperry decision, the Court found that viticulture did not have to be the primary use of the property to be exempt from township zoning, and even the growing of one vine could qualify. The Terry decision also indicated that to be exempt from zoning, the property had to be used for agricultural purposes and the buildings on the property must be “incident to the agricultural use of the land."

While Terry was about the use of the land, the opinion noted, in this case the township does not dispute the use of the land, but the use of the buildings. The Court stated it had to determine if the barn itself is used primarily for the vinting and selling of wine to qualify for a zoning exemption.

The Court stated the law does not define the word “primary” and ruled that whether a structure is used primarily for vinting and selling wine is a question of fact that must be proven by a preponderance of evidence.

Barn’s Primary Use Debated
The township argued that only 4 percent of the barn’s overall space was used for vinting and selling wine. However, the opinion stated the amount of time or space dedicated to a building’s use does not always control its “primary” use.

“Suppose that Ohio Stadium hosts 20 events on a yearly basis, but only 7 of those events are home games for The Ohio State University football team. It would be difficult to argue that under that scenario the primary use of Ohio Stadium is something other than football,” the opinion stated.

Because the trial court found renters of the barn would be required to purchase Blueberry Barn’s wine, the court could reasonably determine the barn proved its primary use is for wine sales, which makes it exempt from township zoning, the Court concluded.

2019-0418. Litchfield Twp. Bd. of Trustees v. Forever Blueberry Barn LLC, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-1508.

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