Ryan Nixon didn’t set out to change the world, but his agritourism venture has turned Webster Township’s government on its ear.
Nixon and his daughter Jenna are waiting for a hearing with a Washtenaw County Circuit Court Judge to enter a written order upholding their right to host weddings on the 98-year-old family farm. After the order is entered, the township must decide whether it will appeal.
In the meantime, the township is taking steps to end seasonal agritourism, Nixon said.
Webster Township passed an ordinance Sept. 19 that, in essence, outlaws seasonal agritourism as the Nixons know it and gets very specific about what it wants to eliminate in an agricultural zone. The newly adopted ordinance reads:
Zoning Ordinance Section 9.10.B.ix:
Amendments to the language removing the term seasonal agri-tourism to: “ix. Hay rides, pumpkin patches, corn mazes and Christmas tree farms conducted during the relevant planting, growing or harvest season, primarily during daylight hours, but only as an accessory use of the property where the principal use of the property is "Farm Operation: Crops" or "Farm Operation: Animals." Such activities set forth in the previous sentence shall not include: (i) offering, selling or serving alcoholic beverages for consumption on the premises; (ii) music, loudspeakers, gunfire, fireworks or other non-agricultural sounds audible outside the boundaries of the property; or (iii) wedding barns, event barns or use of the property or any portion to host weddings, parties, receptions or other special events.”
The ordinance is not about agritourism, Webster Township Supervisor John Kingsley said the day after the ordinance was passed.
“The ordinance was amended to take out the actual term agritourism and put in its place a definition that the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) determined,” he said. “We’re just trying to nail down what’s allowed and what isn’t.”
What remains in question, however, is whether the Nixons are operating under a grandfathered use.
Nixon’s attorney, Stephon Bagne, said he assumes, knowing previous practices that have determined that ordinances cannot be enforced retroactively, that the Nixons are grandfathered. However, Kingsley said, the township sees it differently.
“This Nixon situation is different,” he said. “He sued the township, and the court will determine what he can or can’t do. A use can only be grandfathered if the use was legal when it was begun. Our contention is that it was not legal under the current ordinance.”
Bagne said the order entered in court confirms that weddings are legal, and it will be up to the township to decide whether to appeal. Bagne also indicated that even if the judge’s ruling is overturned, Nixon’s “event venue” is a grandfathered use that can continue.
The ultimate decision is important to Ryan and Jenna, because the family farm’s economic viability depends on it.
“Without the weddings, I would be forced to sell,” Ryan said. “Or, I could look to build a hog farm. I can legally put 30 hogs per acre here in confinement in the (township’s) agriculture zone, and I might go that far. This is not about me anymore. It’s a fight for the rest of the community. Most of the farmers around here have already given up their development rights, and I believe the fight is about being able to use your private property in the way you would like.”
This is not the first time Webster Township has been at odds with the Nixon family. Ryan’s father was sued three times by the township when he wanted to sell property to a developer.
“The only choice Dad had was to put it in the greenbelt,” Ryan said. “What I have left depends on agritourism, and my right to do it has been determined by the court.”
What is agritourism?
Bagne said the township’s problem stemmed from its failure to define terms.
“Agritourism was not defined by the zoning ordinance,” he said. “The ordinance required the ZBA to provide a definition according to the ‘standard or common utilization’ of the term.”
After receiving “proof that the Michigan Department of Agriculture, Michigan Farm Bureau, Michigan Agritourism Association, and dozens of other governments, universities, agricultural Extension offices, or trade organizations around the country recognize that agritourism includes weddings,” Bagne said, the Webster Township ZBA “created its own definition in order to prevent barn weddings.” The definition, the judge agreed, did not fulfill the ordinance’s mandate, he said.
“Something that is a new creation cannot have a common or standard utilization,” he said. “Further, Michigan law requires ambiguities to be interpreted in favor of the property owner.
“Under Michigan law, my client was entitled to appeal to the Washtenaw County Circuit Court,” he said. “After the lengthiest oral argument in my career, the Court ruled in favor of my client. The term agritourism includes weddings, and therefore (Nixon’s) use was permitted under the zoning ordinance. The Court found the requirement that ambiguous ordinances be interpreted in favor of the property owner compelling.”
For the Nixons, the decision was indeed compelling. It meant that the rather lucrative business venture, along with a corn maze that draws in about 12,000 people in 20 days, could continue as a seasonal use, since weddings are only booked between May and September.
But now that’s all in question. The answer just might change many people’s view of the agricultural world.
Part of the reason the township feels so empowered to go after the Nixons is that it won a court case against a year-round wedding venue called Cottonwood a few years ago.
“After that appeals victory, the zoning administrator in Webster Township sent Ryan a letter saying he could finish the 2016 season, but then had to shut down because his wedding venue was not allowed in Webster Township,” Bagne said. “That was not accurate. The zoning ordinance allowed, as permitted uses, seasonal agritourism. Nixon’s wedding operation is clearly seasonal.”
It’s also clearly agritourism, Bagne said.
“My argument was if we look at all proofs in front of the ZBA, the common standard utilization of the word includes weddings and barns,” he said. “MDARD, Farm Bureau and the Michigan Agritourism Association, as well as universities and Extension offices around the country all agreed. The township has no proof to the contrary. The township was obligated to comply with the task given them in the ordinance, and that’s a limited task. When the township created a definition on its own that has no previous use, it did not follow its task. The ZBA argued that because the township rejected weddings in a barn, it reflects the intent of the ordinance to exclude Nixon,” he said. “It made the affirmative finding that the term agritourism is ambiguous. If that’s true, then the township is obligated to follow a standard utilization that must already exist.”
While attorneys dwell on such details, the spirit of the township’s desire to preserve farmland seems to have been lost in the weeds, said Matt Kapp, government relations specialist with Michigan Farm Bureau.
“The main mission of Farm Bureau is to keep farms profitable and to help families pass the family farm from one generation to the next,” he said. “That’s what Ryan is doing. His daughter Jenna actually quit her job to take over this operation fulltime. We don’t know, at this point, what the township is trying to do other than what seems evident. It wants to eliminate agritourism as part of the agricultural zone, which could lead to the end of a family farm operation.”
Clearly, the Nixons want to preserve the family farm, of which Jenna is the fifth generation.
“What the township fails to recognize,” Kapp said, “is that agriculture is a business, not just open space. In areas that have grown up around farms like this, agritourism is vital to keeping family farms in business.”
Remaining in business has gotten more difficult, however, since the township began its battle against on-farm weddings, Nixon said.
“I don’t want the reputation of ruining someone’s wedding plans,” he said. “Most of them are booked a year in advance. We had a few cancellations this year because we were constantly in (legal) limbo. I had to get a court order to have the weddings I’d already booked for this year. It’s a continual hassle. My health has gone downhill from the stress.”
If there is any consolation for the Nixons, it’s that neighbors showed up to support them at the recent ZBA meeting where the proposed restrictive ordinance was approved and sent to the township board, which approved it the next day.
Township Supervisor Kingsley, however, said Nixon’s supporters didn’t understand.
“There were more people speaking (at the township meeting) against this (ordinance) change than for it,” he said. “A lot of them obviously had not read the proposal.”
Whether that’s true or not, Kapp said, Webster Township, hopefully, will lose this case in court. “I think that it’s the township that doesn’t understand what’s involved with agriculture,” he said. “Which would they prefer? Weddings in a nice, well-kept, historic family farm’s barn or a hog farm? It seems clear that the Nixons did everything they could to cooperate, follow the law and preserve the family farm. What happens next, we’ll wait and see. This is not just Nixon’s fight, though. The outcome could change how agriculture operates in today’s world. And it could change how the Nixons and other farmers who are trying to survive in a quickly changing environment view their local government.”