Event Barn For Nixon Farms Is “Legal Conforming Use” said Judge

By Lynne Beauchamp, lbeauchamp@thesuntimesnews.com

Judge Timothy P. Connors “closed administratively’ in the case of Nixon Farms vs. Webster Township in Washtenaw County Circuit Court on September 24, allowing Nixon Farms to continue with its event barn business for now.

Nixon Farms in Webster Township became a wedding venue in 2012 for couples looking to host their day in a unique atmosphere which includes a historical barn with over 4,000 square feet. Ryan Nixon said he made many upgrades to the barn at the family farm, now in its fifth generation. Nixon said, in a previous interview, that weddings were a major event at the farm until he received a zoning violation for holding such events. Nixon Farms also does a corn maze, hay rides, pumpkin patch and sells Christmas trees.

At that time, the term “seasonal agri-tourism” in the zoning ordinance was considered ambiguous and Nixon interpreted he was in compliance with his event barn.

After Nixon received a violation notice, he took the township to court. Judge Connors, in September of 2017, ruled in favor of Nixon as a legal conforming use. In the meantime, the township board approved the planning commission’s request to replace the term seasonal agri-tourism in the zoning ordinance to “Hay rides, pumpkin patches, corn mazes and Christmas tree farms”. Nixon’s attorney, Stephon Bagne, indicated with this change, Nixon Event Barn became a “legal, non-conforming use”.

In August 2018 the Webster Township Board of Trustees furthermore amended the zoning ordinance once again. The amendment to the zoning ordinance now describes Seasonal Agri-tourism as “land uses and activities that are seasonal, community-oriented, open to the public, related to farming and agriculture, and operated for education and enjoyment, which entail participation, earning or involvement in the farming activities of a Farm Operation, and which meet all of the following criteria”…the resolution goes on to specify the criteria which includes agricultural activities of the farm, taking place primarily in an outdoor setting and mostly during daylight hours as well as consideration of noise and traffic involved with the farm activity. The language describes accepted Seasonal Agri-tourism to include such events as hay rides, sleigh rides, corn mazes, pumpkin patches, u-pick operations and Christmas tree farms but does not include event barns, wedding barns or other facilities that host parties, receptions or special events; restaurants or cafes; lodges, bed and breakfasts; campgrounds or other facilities hosting overnight guests; concert, fairs or festivals: game/hunting preserves; any use or activity that would constitute a Special Use pursuant to Section 9.10.C of the zoning Ordinance; and other activities not meeting the criteria included within the above definition of “Seasonal Agri-tourism”.

At the September 24, 2018 trial, Judge Connors asked legal counsel of parties what specifically he was trying that day.

“I am having a hard time understanding why we are here,” Connors said to both parties during the September 24 trial. “I made a ruling it’s a conforming use,” Connors added of a previous trial of the same parties.

After more discussion between counsel and Connors, Connors reinstated his previous ruling that Nixon Farms was a legally conforming business and administratively closed the case which will now be determined by the appellate court.

Webster Township Supervisor, John Kingsley offered a statement after the trial.

“In Judge Connors’ previous ruling, he said that commercial event barns should be allowed in Ag zoning because he felt that the legislative intent of our ordinance was not clear. That ruling made Nixon’s a conforming use.  The BOT [Webster Board of Trustees] has made it clear that commercial businesses do not belong in the Ag district. Unless the Township’s appeal overturns Judge Connor’s ruling, Nixon’s will be able to continue their business at that location…The Township Board changed the zoning ordinance to put “seasonal agritourism” back in and clarified the definition. Since Nixon’s are allowed to hold commercial weddings in the Ag district by court ruling and the zoning ordinance specifically does not allow the commercial events, they are the only ones allowed to do so…Judge Connors ‘administratively closed’ the case until the higher courts consider the issue of the ZBA ruling because there is no reason for him to consider other claims [monetary damages to Nixon Farms] when we don’t know what the higher court will say,” Kingsley said.Ryan Nixon said he would like to seek monetary damages but not sure how the appellate court will decide the case.Nixon said he continues to book wedding events at Nixon Farms and will continue until the appellate court makes a decision in the case, he said this could take a few months or a few years. Nixon said in the meantime, his corn maze at the farm has been successful and has seen an increase in the business since opening for the season.

Seth Kinker

Reporter/Digital Media for The Sun Times News

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