Are wedding barns here to stay?

Older generations are scratching their heads wondering why anyone would get married in a barn and millennials are booking barns years in advance for their special day. Are barn weddings merely a phase or are they here to stay?

Wedding barn sign.
Photo by Mary Reilly, Lewis Farms, New Era, MI.

If rural zoning administrators had water cooler talk, it would probably focus on barn weddings. Conversations might be peppered with phrases like “how do dirt floors mix with a white dress?” or “that barn is just gorgeous!”. Maybe between trusted colleagues the conversation would be more serious, “I am pulling my hair out on these wedding barns, I just don’t know what zoning district they belong in! Are these commercial or agricultural?”

Communities can be caught off guard these days on wedding barns or other event centers in rural, predominantly agricultural areas. Contrary to popular belief, wedding barns/event centers are not given a free pass on local regulation because of the Right to Farm Act, nor are they a natural consequence of simply owning a barn. In an unpublished appeals court decision, the court found that a wedding barn is not an automatic accessory use to a dwelling with a barn (Webster Twp. v. Waitz, June 7, 2016).  In doing so, the court signaled that a farm house and a barn regularly hosting events and weddings can be subject to a zoning permit. The wedding barn located on working farm is not covered under the Right to Farm Act either; the 2018 Farm Market Generally Accepted Agricultural Management Practices (GAAMPS) clarify that event centers, wedding barns and many other agri-like uses are “beyond the scope of these management practices, and may be regulated by other governmental bodies.”

Based on the court decision and current GAAMPS, the decision is left up to local governments to decide the fate of wedding barns and event centers. Some communities in Michigan have supported these uses because it gives owners needed income to preserve and maintain a barn, supports the local economy (caterers, hotels, shuttle buses, rental businesses, flowers, salons, etc.), and can be effective marketing for the area by bringing new people to town via wedding tourism. Other communities have decided that an event center is not compatible in an agricultural area where the smell of manure, night time harvesting, chemical spraying, and other agricultural practices are present. Still others have decided that amplified music during the day or night and event traffic just don’t fit with a rural quality of life and have located event centers or banquet halls in a commercial or downtown zoning district.

A decision on where wedding barns/event centers should be located within a community would be ideally suited to visioning and goal setting discussions during a Master Plan update. Allowing concentrations of people and events could increase land use conflicts in a district that is essentially designed for resource production. Many communities are approving these uses through the special land use process with conditions such as limiting the hours of operation and number of events per year.  If the community has not started this conversation yet, the term agritourism best defines the growing demand in an entire class of land uses that bring more people into the agricultural areas for enjoyment, education, and new experiences.

Many are asking if weddings in a barn are here to stay or is it just a trendy phase? The State of the American Traveler, July 2015, Vol. 18, describes how millennials, Generation X, and Baby Boomers seek authenticity (wants a real destination vs. a commercial tourism product), nature (desiring rural over urban travel), cultural and culinary interests, and are exploration hungry. Wedding venues in rural, authentic settings hit many of these marks; getting married in a barn (authentic), driving down rural roads and almost getting lost (exploring), using a porta-john in a bridesmaid’s dress (both authentic/exploring) and finding a caterer that serves locally grown organic food and wine (culinary/cultural). These travel preferences may indicate a popularity for wedding barns and other real and educational experiences in rural areas for years to come. The answer is likely that the wedding barn phase will likely last as long as millenials are getting married. 

It is worth noting that legislation was recently introduced (HB 5947, Rep. Tom Barrett, 5-8-2018) that would prevent local ordinances from prohibiting a barn or other facilities from being used as a commercial venue for weddings or other events. The bill outlines a partial pre-emption in the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act (MCL 125.3101 et seq.) allowing local government to regulate certain aspects such as noise, hours of operation, etc. but not prohibit the use outright. The bill is in the early stages and has been referred to Agricultural Committee of the House of Representatives.  

Additional resources from MSU Extension are available on Right to Farm preemption and other restrictions on local zoning authority in Michigan.  

Those in Michigan State University Extension that focus on land use provide various training programs on planning and zoning, which are available to be presented in your county. Contact your local land use educator for more information.

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