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"Green" Acres: The Commercial Use of a Barn Runs Afoul of the Law

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Stephen W. Smith
Foster Swift Agricultural Law News
July 28, 2016

One of the latest trends of the agri-tourism boom in Michigan is the conversion of barns into event spaces.  However, such a novel repurposing of an iconic farm structure has raised land use and zoning questions in municipalities across the state.  A recent decision by the Michigan Court of Appeals is instructive for barn owners looking to tap into this trend.

In Webster Township v. Waitz, a couple purchased a residential property with a barn based on initial assurances from the township that the zoning ordinance would permit them to use the barn for wedding receptions and similar gatherings as “an accessory use ... incidental and subordinate to” the property’s primary use: the single-family home.  However, after the couple began utilizing it for events, the township began to receive complaints about the intensity of the barn’s use.  The township then learned that the couple planned to operate the barn year-round, and expected a rental every weekend from late spring to early fall, with additional events periodically during the winter and on weekdays.  Moreover, weddings were attracting from 150 to 300 attendees, indoor and outdoor amplified entertainment running as late as 11:00 pm was expected, and the couple had begun construction of a parking lot for the barn.

The township determined that such a level of activity made the barn the principal use, not an accessory use, of the property in violation of the zoning ordinance, and brought suit against the couple.  The trial court ruled in favor of the Township, concluding that the barn’s use was a commercial operation that exceeded the residential use of the property.  It found that the “noise, disruption, traffic, and activity … have no connection to the house as a residence,” and the “guests at the events have no relation, generally, to the occupants of the house.”  The Court of Appeals agreed that the property’s use as a commercial events venue had overtaken its nature as a single-family residence.  While it acknowledged that “families occasionally host weddings and gatherings in their backyards and outbuildings,” there is no evidence that “such gatherings are a year-round weekly occurrence at single-family homes.”  Moreover, “[s]ingle family homes have driveways, not parking lots.”

Barn owners with an interest in using their building as an event space need to be aware of the laws and ordinances that may limit the nature and scope of that use.  Please contact Foster Swift if we may assist you in navigating those legal restrictions and requirements.