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Events on Farmlands – the Rules Are Changing

In the past decade, interest in rural events, such as weddings, reunions and other gatherings, have increased dramatically – who can resist romantic sunsets over golden fields, truly local, organic food and dinner under open skies? In a 2004 survey, the US Department of Agriculture determined that over 50,000 farms in the US were open to the public offering a variety of services, including weddings, picnics, hayrides and other events. However, those events have run into land use issues in Oregon. Oregon’s strong land use laws were driven in large part by the desire to keep productive farmland available for farming and the spike in farm weddings, events and other celebratory events has brought some tensions out in the open – should a farmer be able to make some extra money by renting his fields out a few times a year?

  Or would that type of use result in the development of rural event centers that cater to city dwellers and interfere with the ability of rural residents to raise and harvest their crops? How should all of these questions play in dealing with wineries, a non-farm use that is closely associated with rural lands and which often provide a very desirable site for events.

Oregon counties struggled with these questions form many years and came up with disparate options and methods to deal with these events; most often by using a complaint driven enforcement program that largely ignored these issues. The 2011 legislature adopted two bills that will change the scene and provide a more uniform approach to events on farmland. SB 960 came out of a farm activities tasks force chaired by Yamhill County Commissioner Mary Stern and championed by the Association of Oregon Counties. It sets up several tiers of events and methods and standards to obtain those permits. The easiest path authorizes an expedited permit for a single event in a calendar year for less than 100 people and that ends by 10 pm. There’s also a slightly more difficult path for a single event permit to get a larger or longer gathering.    In addition, there are options to get a permit for up to 6 events, or up to 18 events in a calendar year. Each of those pathways requires slightly different standards to be met but, depending on the receptivity of the local planning office, they may be available for some rural landowners.

Senate Bill 960 applies to all resource zoned land; wineries got their very own bill that addresses events at wineries. House Bill 3280 is a little more convoluted, and portions of the bill are subject to a sunset provision, which means the uses may not be available after January 1, 2014, unless the 2013 legislature changes the law. HB 3280 came out of the winery industry but did not receive the full support of that industry. Although some wineries were in full support, a significant number were not pleased with the amount of events allowed and fear the creation of WINOs (“Wineries In Name Only”). 

The bill provides that almost every winery can host certain activities, including wine tours, wine tastings, wine clubs and “similar activities conducted for the primary purpose of promoting wine” from the winery.  In addition, most wineries will be able to host up to 25 private events at which their wine can be served if the events are “directly related to the sale or promotion of wine” and incidental to the retail sale of wine, so long as the income from those events does not exceed 25% of the gross income from the on-site retail sale of wine. HB 3280 also grandfathers several existing uses, such as wineries that hosted events that were permitted prior to the enactment of the bill.

These two bills at least provide some level of certainty in this area, but they have the potential to change rural uses significantly. The one thing almost everyone involved in these bills can agree on is that the issues are complicated and delicate – HB 3280 went through more than 40 revisions and its authors acknowledged it was a work in progress. This issue has not been resolved and we can expect it see it again 2013.

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We regularly update clients about changes in real estate law and on industry trends. This includes briefing clients on legislative proposals in the federal tax, housing and other legal areas affecting their businesses. Staying current enables you to anticipate and prevent legal problems as well as capitalize on new developments.
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