Wedding barns can keep small farms viable


By John Enos, AICP


This article originally appeared in the May/June, 2019 edition of the Michigan Association of Planning’s Michigan Planner magazine.

In the Michigan Planner’s Wind Energy issue (May/June 2018) author Sarah Mills observed the disconnect between farm owners and other rural residents in her article Blowing in the Wind:  The Answer to Farmland Preservation

“Those who value the landscape for its productive capacity often see wind as just another resource that they can harvest.  By contrast, those who value the landscape for aesthetic reasons are more likely to question whether wind turbines fit in with the landscape.  As a result, it is not uncommon to see modern-day discussions about wind energy resembling those that gave rise to Right to Farm laws nearly 40 years ago.”

The challenge of protecting rural character is not a new one.  In this three part series, the Michigan Planner will delve into the some of the tools available to communities.  

Wedding Barns

“After peaking at 6.8 million farms in 1935, the number of U.S. farms fell sharply until leveling off in the early 1970s. Falling farm numbers during this period reflected growing productivity in agriculture and increased nonfarm employment opportunities. Because the amount of farmland did not decrease as much as the number of farms, the remaining farms have more acreage, on average—about 444 acres in 2017 versus 155 acres in 1935. About 2.05 million farms are currently in operation.” –USDA

The romantic image of the family farm is largely a fable.  And yet the barn is a sentimental sign that our past is not completely lost.   

“Barns are more than just a building on a farm. They represent the heart of the American rural community and the farming industry. Used as factories, warehouses, and social gathering places, barns invoke a sense of tradition, community and security. Even as barns disappear from the landscape, they still embody a strong symbol in our heritage.”  --Good Tymes Barn

How can communities and planners develop policies, ordinances and procedures to preserve these icons and the quality of life that they represent? 

First, it must be economically viable to maintain a farm or a barn.  The Right to Farm Act protects agricultural activities from nuisance suits including activities directly related to farming and ancillary uses such as orchards, corn mazes, and markets.   The Right to Farm Act does not extend to farms being used for wedding barns.  But that doesn’t mean a wedding barn is incompatible with rural character or farmland preservation. 

Wedding barns are not used exclusively for weddings.  They can be used for any kind of event including business retreats, baby showers, family reunions and so forth.  Wedding barns, which started in historic, retrofitted barns, are now sometimes in newly constructed buildings on farms.  Additionally, some farms host outdoor events without using the barn at all.  For the purposes of this article, the term “wedding barn” includes any type of event with or without a building taking place on a farm.   

Wedding barns have challenges and issues:  building and fire code requirements for safe public assembly, accessibility and barrier free issues, parking and traffic flow, site lighting for safe egress, noise, waste disposal, and signage.  When considering whether to permit wedding barns, community leaders and planners must carefully develop policies and ordinances to ensure a safe event space, while protecting rural character and neighbors from potential nuisances associated with the use.

When discussing policies and ordinances consider the following:

  • Should wedding barns in rural areas be a “permitted by right” use or only after meeting standards as a “special land use?”

  • How large should the subject property be?

  • Are outdoor events allowed or just indoor events?

  • What setbacks should be required from the neighboring properties?

  • How many events will be allowed per week or per year?

  • Which type of structures should be permitted to host events:  historic structures only or new construction on existing farmland?  Historic barns are charming; they are buildings being repurposed to modern standards.  But that repurposing can be difficult.  New construction doesn’t have the challenges of a historic renovation project, but is the community still “preserving” rural character? 

  • Will there be a limit to how many wedding barns are allowed in a community?  If so, how many?

  • Does the wedding barn need to be on a paved road?

  • Will traffic increase or will it just be different (different times and days)? Are improvements needed to mitigate any traffic issues?

  • What type of site lighting is appropriate for a rural setting, but will also ensure pedestrian safety from the event to the parking lot?

  • Does the parking lot need to be paved? Can it be gravel or simply grass?

  • What type of facilities are required (restrooms or kitchen)?  If restrooms will be built, consider that the septic field will most likely need to be expanded.  Are porta johns acceptable? 

  • Consider the coordination needed between various governmental entities (road commission, health department, etc.)

Farmers need options to remain economically viable; however, parsing out the line between preserving rural character and a thriving farming business can be difficult. Reaching the balance between what is good for the community and what is good (enough) for the farm owner is something each community must determine.

Crafting policies and ordinances to allow wedding barns is just one of the tools available to preserve rural character.  In upcoming issues, we will explore other approaches such as planned unit development and purchasing development rights.