Get in the Zone! Tennessee lawsuit illustrates the harsh reality of zoning laws for farms

Here at Farm Commons we talk about zoning a lot. This is because zoning can cause a lot of headache and heartache on the farm. A decision out of the Tennessee courts in early February – Jefferson Cty. v. Wilmoth Family Properties, LLC, No. E201902283COAR3CV, 2021 WL 321219 (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 1, 2021) – illustrates this quite well. Like so many farms these days, the Tennessee farm owners in this case were going along in their hay and chicken operation just fine, but decided to branch out into agritourism to add some revenue. The farm family was surprised – and not in a good way – when the county send a notice to stop using the property as an “event venue,” stating that it was illegal to have commercial events in their rural residential zone.

What? Rural residential? This was a farm where farm stuff happened, the Wilmoth family thought. Their property had formerly been a dairy farm and a slaughterhouse, after all. So, this was very strange that their property would be zoned for residential use.

But, this happens all the time. As cities grow and expand outwardly into rural areas, farmland is swallowed up and areas that were once zoned for agricultural purposes can be annexed into the city, or re-zoned to prohibit some of the more intensive agricultural activities to accommodate city folk.

In the end, things turned out ok for the Wilmoth farm, due to something called the “Right to Farm” law, but that’s another story for another day…But, to get to their happy ending, they had to endure a lawsuit, and that’s no fun for anyone involved.

So, the point is…check your zoning code before you host that barn wedding or do that goat yoga!

For more information about this case visit the National Agricultural Law Center’s website. If you are needing help understanding zoning and how to figure out what zone your farm is in, check out our resource, FAQ: Agritourism on your Farm or pages 5-7 of our more comprehensive guide, Hosting Safer, More Legally Secure On-farm Events.