Wedding venue on Bedford County farm hits legal snag with ‘Right to Farm Act’ – Tennessee Lookout

The intent of the Tennessee Right to Farm Act, passed in 1982, was to discourage local zoning and neighbors who dislike farming activities from disrupting farmers. The Right to Farm Act and a recent Tennessee Court of Appeals ruling allow farmers to supplement their income by hosting events and other recreational activities, including weddings and farmers’ markets.

In 2019, Bedford County updated its zoning ordinance to conform with the state’s Farm Right Act, after it was amended that year. The ordinance now specifically mentions marriages as a permitted use on agricultural land.

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But despite protections from the courts, state law and local zoning, Chris and Stephanie Sarsfield, owners of Lynfield Gardens, a small farm just outside of Bell Buckle, have been prevented from hosting weddings and other public events with an injunction before over three years by Chancellor James B. Cox in Bedford County Chancery Court. According to Chris Sarsfield, the court is being used by attorneys to undermine the protections of the Right to Farm Act.

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Reluctant to do business

The injunction came during a challenge over use of the driveway the Sarsfields share with their neighbor Virginia Stewart. All but 50 feet of this entrance is on land owned by Stewart. However, the Sarsfields have a chartered easement that allows them to use everything. Cox opined that the Sarsfields’ proposed use of the driveway likely went beyond what was intended as a residential driveway. After the injunction was issued, the Sarsfields spent $30,000 to build a new driveway entirely on their property in an effort to solve the problem. But the injunction remains stuck in the legal mud.

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Chris Sarsfield and Stephanie Sarsfield at their farm in Bedford County.  (Photo: Submitted)
Chris Sarsfield and Stephanie Sarsfield at their farm in Bedford County. (Photo: Submitted)

But the Sarsfields’ plans were already hampered before the Cox ruling, which dates back more than five years to a dispute with former Stewart and Bell Buckle mayor Jenny Hunt and her husband Joe, who are also neighbors.

The House of the Hunt sits on nearly 10 acres in the town of Bell Buckle. Stewart owns approximately 210 acres of open range land bordering the Sarsfields to the south and east.

Bell Buckle’s board of directors joined efforts to stop the Sarsfields in 2017 when the Sarfields first announced their plan to host weddings and other events at their newly established 22-acre farm. He has spent $50,000 on legal fees so far, according to Chris Sarsfield.

In court filings, the Hunts and Stewart allege that the Sarsfields’ operations do not meet the legal definition of a farm and therefore do not deserve the protection of the Right to Farm Act. The Bedford County zoning administrator conducted an inspection of the Sarsfield’s property and ruled that they operate a farm. The Tennessee Department of Treasury classified the Sarsfields’ property as a farm and granted them a sales tax exemption on farm purchases.

The Sarsfields have ramped up their farming activities since purchasing their property in 2016. They have Nine hectares under active, intensive management and have regular hours during which the local public can come to pick crops and bouquets of wildflowers. They have planted 175 fruit trees, blackberries, pumpkins and an array of wildflowers. They hold regular farming events throughout the year that are open to the public, including visits from 4-H groups, pumpkin carving sessions in October, wildflower picking, botanical art sessions and classes, and hay rides.

“We don’t just hang around waiting to host weddings,” said Chris Sarsfield.

Bell Buckle’s opposition

In May 2017, the Bell Buckle Board of Aldermen voted to hire two attorneys, including Theodore W. Goodman, the attorney the Hunts hired to oppose the Sarsfields. In their resolution against the Sarsfields, the councilors claimed that the Sarsfields’ plans to host weddings “would result in increased and undesirable vehicle congestion … and likely disturbance of the peace” and “endanger the public health and welfare of Bell Buckle and are peaceful and pastoral.” Quality of life that its residents value…” The city’s resolution also brought the specter of raw sewage to the streets, writing, “It is the public policy of the state of Tennessee to protect and conserve its surface and ground water systems that is vulnerable and threatened are due to inadequate or improper septic systems.”

The Hunt’s attorney, Goodman, wrote in a court filing: “Given that this facility would be used by a large number of people, it is reasonable to assume that the proposed field line would withstand hundreds of flushes in a short period of time. Therefore, the risk of sewage treatment plant failure and possible spillage onto neighboring property is unacceptably high.”

The city’s order directed its attorneys (including Goodman) to consult with Mayor Hunt.

Chris and Stephanie Sarsfield cultivate 9 acres of fruit trees, berries, pumpkins and wildflowers and invite the public to 4-H club visits, berry picking and pumpkin carving. The couple also hosts weddings on their farm and that got them into a legal battle.

In its resolution, the city addressed the possibility of a conflict of interest as the mayor was involved in the private litigation with the Sarsfields while also consulting with attorneys the city wanted to hire. “The City of Bell Buckle, Mayor Hunt and Alderman (Frank) Reagor have been counseled by legal counsel regarding the nature and existence of potential conflicts of interest between the City and the property owners, and the importance of avoiding any impropriety or the appearance thereof…” but the ” City of Bell Buckle has independently determined that no such conflict of interest and impropriety exists based on all known facts…”.

Hunt Mayor Ronnie Lokey said the city did not pay attorneys to take action against the Sarsfields. However, the city has done nothing to overrule its conflicting resolution against the Sarsfields.

Hunt’s attorney, Goodman, in a 2020 lawsuit filed against the Bedford County zoning authority, made unusual allegations of conflict of interest against zoning department director Chris Hunt and members of the zoning authority because they and/or their family members are involved in farming whether they are “unsuitable” to make findings in cases involving agriculture.

Take it to court

After failed efforts to bring the Sarsfields to the zoning board, Virginia Stewart sued the county, alleging that the zoning administrator was unqualified for his job of inspecting properties and had no authority to make zoning compliance decisions. Stewart also claimed that the Zoning Board’s decisions were “arbitrary and capricious.”

In 2019, two years after litigation with the Sarsfields began, the county passed an updated building code. The revised county ordinance permits “light entertainment activities (wedding barn, corporate retreats, wine tasting, etc.) on a full-time farm…that are ancillary and/or ancillary to farming activities.”

But despite changes in state law and the county’s zoning ordinance, the temporary restriction ordinance remains in effect three years later.

Court of Appeal approves farm weddings

A Tennessee Court of Appeals ruling last year strengthened farmers’ right to rent out their facilities for weddings. The court ruled in Jefferson County, Tennessee v. Wilmoth Family Properties states that the Wilmoth family’s use of the property for weddings in addition to their farming operations “…consistent with the apparent intention of the legislature to allow for the necessary supplementation of farming income from related activities, provided such activities are in addition to the commercial production of agricultural and nursery products.”

The Court of Appeals ruled that the yardstick used to determine whether recreational events are “secondary” to farming is not a matter of dollars and cents. The court ruled that farming was the Wilmoths’ primary occupation based on the number of hours Mr. Wilmoth devoted to farming compared to the “minimum time he spent facilitating his entertainment venues business”. As of 2019, the Wilmoths had a farm income of $6,250 and a rental income of $47,247 (“$28,375 in rental income from weddings and other events on the property”) as applicable to jurisdiction.

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