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Court spells out law on farm activities

Mateusz Perkowski, Capital Press December 05. 2013

The Oregon Court of Appeals has ruled that weddings and corporate events aren't permissible on farmland, but smaller-scale events that feature agricultural education, like birthdays, are allowable. Structures used solely for promotions, even temporary ones like bouncy castles, are also banned by Oregon's land use law, the ruling held. However, farmers are permitted to hold outdoor farm-to-plate dinners. Food carts are allowed only if they sell crops and livestock from the farm.

Weddings and corporate events are not permissible activities on Oregon farmland, according to the state’s Court of Appeals.

Bouncy castles and other structures, even temporary ones, used solely for promotions are also out, according to the court’s Dec. 4 ruling.

The ruling’s impact on food carts is more ambiguous — they’re only allowed on the farm if primarily used to sell the farm’s crops and livestock.

However, the Court of Appeals has approved of outdoor farm-to-plate dinners and small-scale events, like birthdays, that provide education about agriculture.

The ruling springs from a disagreement among neighbors on Sauvie Island, a popular agritourism destination near Portland, Ore.

Mark Greenfield, a land use attorney who lives on the island, objected to several activities conducted at Bella Organic, a farm that’s down the road from his home.

“You’re seeing more and more farms becoming event centers,” Greenfield said.

The dispute wound its way through the county administrative process to the state’s Land Use Board of Appeals and eventually to the state appeals court.

The biggest impact from the ruling is likely its ban on structures used solely for promotions, like bouncy castles and similar agritourism attractions, said Ty Wyman, attorney for Bella Organic.

“If (you) were an opponent of a farmstand operation, this certainly gives (you) some ammunition,” he said. “That’s where I think you’re going to see cutbacks in their operations.”

In the case of Bella Organic, the structures in question were a viewing platform for a corn maze and tents.

The Court of Appeals said that under Oregon’s land use law, farmstand structures are intended for the sale of crops and livestock.

While they can be used to sell “incidental retail items,” that cannot be their predominant purpose, the ruling held.

“The statute’s allowance of the use of a farmstand structure for ‘the sale of farm crops and livestock’ does not include the outright use of the structure for promotional activities, much less use of a structure only for those activities,” the court said.

Wyman said he disagrees with this characterization of Oregon’s land use law, which was intended to preserve farmland and prevent acreage from being taken out of production.

“Temporary structures don’t threaten the viability of the land,” he said.

The Court of Appeals also distinguished between the types of events that can be held on farms, indicating they need to be small-scale, provide consumers with information about the farm and promote sales of farm products.

“Those promotional activities are more likely to be a significant part of a short-duration event such as a birthday party or family picnic than a longer event with more participants, such as a corporate retreat or wedding,” the ruling said.

Greenfield said he has long opposed the intrusion of non-farm uses into farm zones.

“I thought they were not appropriate unless the legislature comes out and says so,” he said.

Greenfield said the main reason he brought to case before the Court of Appeals was to clarify ambiguities in the law.

The court clearly sided with him on several points, he said. “Stopping weddings is one of the biggest things I won.”

However, the court disagreed with Greenfield about farm-to-plate dinners, which he contended were banned under a provision that disallows banquets within farm structures.

Based on legislative history, the Court of Appeals found that lawmakers were not worried about farmers conducting outdoor promotions like outdoor dinners.

“Instead, the legislative concern was to avoid the placement of commercial structures on farmland that were related to farm marketing, such as restaurants, supermarkets and stadiums,” the ruling said.

On the matter of food carts, the court held that their permissibility on farmland will depend on the type of products they sell.

“Because food carts are structures, they are permissible under the farm stand statute only if they are ‘designed and used for the sale of farm crops or livestock grown on the farm operation’ and are not designed for activities other than the sale of crops or livestock.”

Greenfield said that in his interpretation of the ruling, the sale of prepared foods will not count as sales of farm crops or livestock, though the question will ultimately be decided by Oregon’s Land Use Board of Appeals.

“I’ll be curious to see how that’s dealt with,” he said.

Wyman said he’s concerned that holding outdoor farm-to-plate meals will be hindered by the ban on structures solely for promotional uses.

If a picnic table falls under that definition, for example, then such outdoor events would be unworkable, he said.

“How, as a practical matter, can you pull it off?” Wyman said.

Realistically, though, county governments in Oregon don’t have the resources to hunt for such promotional violations, but will respond to disputes as they arise, he said.

“It will be primarily complaint driven,” Wyman said. “My first piece of advice to any client is to try to get along with neighbors.”


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