COLUMBUS, Ohio — Let’s hope the marriages that began at Stoney Hill Farm in southwestern Ohio fare better than the wedding barn where they started. Yet another lawsuit over the Stoney Hill wedding barn has ended in an adverse ruling for the owner. The Second District Court of Appeals recently upheld a permanent injunction that for now, prevents the owner from renting the barn for weddings and other events.
The case highlights the continuing conflicts across Ohio over what to do with wedding barns on farms. Should wedding barns be subject to local zoning and state building and fire codes? Or should wedding barns qualify for the exemptions from zoning, building, and fire codes Ohio law provides for agricultural types of land uses? It’s a question that has often ended up in court, as the statutory zoning exemptions for agriculture and agritourism in Ohio law are unclear and require judicial interpretation.
How we got here
The legal battles against Powlette, the owner of Stoney Hill Farm, started in 2018. The owner constructed a new two-story, 8,000 square foot barn on 26 acres he had purchased in Miami Township. Declaring that the barn would be used for the agricultural purpose of housing horses, Powlette received an exemption from local zoning regulations for the barn. That’s because Ohio’s “agricultural exemption” removes township zoning authority from agricultural land uses and structures to ensure that agriculture can take place in Ohio’s unincorporated areas.
But when Powlette later advertised the barn as Stoney Hill Rustic Weddings and began using it to host weddings and events, the township filed a notice of zoning violation. The township’s zoning resolution did not permit those types of uses in Powlette’s zoning district. The Board of Zoning Appeals and Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas reviewed the facts and determined Powlette was using the barn not just for agriculture but as a place of “public assembly,” in violation of zoning regulations.
Powlette then planted grapevines on the property and began making wine, claiming those activities allowed him to continue using the barn under another part of the agricultural exemption. That part gives zoning and building code exemptions for buildings that are used primarily for vinting and selling wine that are on land where there is viticulture, the growing of grapes. The township again disagreed that Powlette could host weddings and events in the barn and sought a permanent injunction against its continued use. The Montgomery Township Common Pleas court reviewed Powlette’s use of the barn and determined that the winery-based zoning exemptions did not apply or allow him to hold weddings and events. The trial court issued a permanent injunction, preventing Powlette from renting, leasing, or operating weddings, receptions, parties, or other celebratory events in the barn for a fee. Powlette appealed the injunction to the Second District Court of Appeals, which brings us to the court’s decision on September 30, 2022.
As a side note, the Montgomery Court of Common Pleas fined Powlette $50,000 last month for continuing to hold weddings in the barn despite the permanent injunction issued by the court. Powlette’s response is that he is not in violation of the injunction since he no longer charges a fee for the weddings. He claims an Ohio Supreme Court case allows him to have free weddings for guests who purchase his wine.
Additionally, note that there have been several other legal actions against Powlette from the Montgomery County Board of Building Regulations and the Fire District for building code and fire code violations, also based on the use of the structure for weddings and events and also resulting in rulings against Powlette. And public attention has been high, with television and newspaper reporters covering the township and neighborhood conflicts over the late night, noisy wedding parties at Stoney Hill.
The Court of Appeals decision
The question Powlette raised with the Court of Appeals in the recent case is whether the Montgomery County Common Pleas court properly granted the permanent injunction. Powlette maintains that the trial court erred by failing to find that the Stoney Hill barn is used for agriculture or agritourism, which would exempt the structure from zoning. The appellate court reviewed the trial court’s finding that the only agricultural use in the barn was the storing of hay in the upper level of the barn, which also contained outdoor decks, decorative windows, chandeliers, two restrooms, a staging area for bridal parties, a prep area with cabinets and a refrigerator, and electrical, heating and cooling systems. The evidence indicated, however, that the hay was stored in the barn for use as decorations or seating and not as animal feed. The court did not see error in the trial court’s conclusion that the barn was constructed for events and not for an agricultural purpose.
The appellate court also agreed that the wedding barn should not be exempt from zoning as agritourism. Ohio law defines agritourism as an agriculturally related educational, cultural, historical, entertainment, or recreational activity on a farm. Powlette argued that wedding guests were educated about agriculture, were entertained by interacting with animals and taking wagon rides, that rural weddings are historical and cultural events, and that gathering for a rural wedding in a recreational event. However, the court questioned how those activities were “agriculturally related.” With little explanation, the court stated that it could not see any connection between the wedding venue in the second story of the barn and any agricultural activities occurring on the property. “Instead, the barn was built in order to serve as an event venue in a rural, agricultural setting,” the court concluded.
The court also disagreed with Powlette’s second argument against the trial court, that the permanent injunction it granted was overbroad and foreclosed him from any future activities that would qualify as agritourism. Quickly dispensing with that argument, the court stated that Powlette could request that the injunction be dissolved if he properly engaged in an exempt agricultural use, such as establishing a vineyard and vinting operation as the primary use of the barn.
What now for wedding barns?
Given that Powlette has begun planting grapes and making wine, a request to dissolve the injunction against him may be the next step of the Stoney Hill wedding barn story. But the bigger questions remain: should wedding barns like Stoney Hill be exempt from zoning oversight? Should an owner be permitted to build or renovate a barn for weddings and events in any rural area, or should local zoning be able to regulate where wedding barns can be? For now, the answer from the Second District Court of Appeals is clear: barns built to serve as wedding venues aren’t agriculturally related to the land, don’t have an agricultural purpose, and should not be exempt from zoning. But like marriage, the future of whether wedding barns are subject to rural zoning in Ohio could be subject to change.
— Peggy Kirk Hall, Associate Professor, Agricultural & Resource Law
Ohio State University CFAES