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Rustic Weddings on Your Property: Zoning, Code Issues

By Lisa M. Schaffer, Esq. on July 26, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Rustic weddings have been all the rage this past decade, and throngs of people are looking to cash in on the fad, much to the dismay of neighbors who live out in the country for peace and solitude. City Slickers descend on farm communities for a One Night Only event, hoping to wear those designer cowboy boots that looked so cool in the SoHo boutique last year. Any neighbor could handle one or two raging weddings a year when they live in multiple-acre plots. But in what has now become a weekly Fantasy Island event, neighbors are fed up, and are throwing every law possible at rustic wedding venue business, in the hopes of shutting them down.

Here's a look at the zoning and code issues you may encounter when hosting a wedding on your property.

What Zone Are We In?

Most rustic wedding venues are located on plots of land zoned for agricultural use, not commercial. Though many venue owners have tried to establish these venues as "agribusiness," similar to a petting zoo or agricultural museums, few succeed. Wedding venue owners try to convince city council members to change zoning categories to fit their needs, but that takes time.

Most of these venues are only open during late spring to early fall -- they could miss out on a whole year's worth of profits waiting for rezoning. Instead many ask for a variance or operate in violation of zoning laws, looking for forgiveness instead of permission.

Is That Building Up to Code?

In Iowa City, and throughout rural areas in America, these rural wedding venues are on the rise, and neighbors are concerned about Building Code violations, especially when these buildings are on agriculturally zoned land. Most existing structures in those zones are not designed to hold over 200 people, but more like 200 bales of hay. Residents in this town claim these barns are rarely inspected to make sure they meet modern building code regulations.

Most rural Code Enforcement officers assume rustic barns on farms are no longer in use since they rarely serve any purpose on a modern farm. These structures lack proper sanitation, fire doors and sprinklers, are unable to meet American Disabilities Act standards, and owners serve liquor without a license, sometimes in a dry county. A fire could quickly start from candles, cooking equipment, or a cigarette, and light not only this barn on fire, but adjacent farms and structures, especially if the closest fire department is miles away.

Rustic Weddings: Fad or Fade?

Sometimes neighbors don't like to make a fuss, and hope if they ignore the ruckus, the fad will fade away. But as Pinterest boards and websites abound with rustic wedding ideas and rezoning tips, that may be wishful thinking.

The Knot, an online wedding-planning website and magazine, reported that 15 percent of couples chose a barn, farm, or ranch for their wedding reception in 2017, up from just 2 percent in 2009. To boot, rustic weddings are big business, with vendors spending upwards of $500,000 to purchase or restore rustic sites for the sole purpose of hosting weddings, at a price of approximately $5,000 per wedding. With that level of revenue and investment, this fad could be hear to stay for another decade.

In the battle between neighbor vs. neighbor, there's currently no winners. Town folk have lost their serene community, businesses are being shut down, and engaged couples are losing their wedding venue last minute as unfortunate collateral damage. If you are looking to rezone an area, or to enforce local zoning laws, contact a land use and zoning lawyer in your area that can best assess your situation and help resolve that matter in your favor.

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