“Necessary” Farm Operations under the Right to Farm Act: Township of Williamston v. Sandalwood Ranch, LLC

Introduction 

The Michigan Court of Appeals recently provided clarity regarding interpretation of the term “farm operations” under the Michigan Right to Farm Act, (“RTFA”), MCL 286.741, et seq., in Williamston Twp v Sandalwood Ranch, LLC, ___ Mich App __; ___ NW2d ___ (2018) (Docket No. 337469).  In its decision, the Court of Appeals held that in order for a use to be protected under the RTFA that use must be “necessary” for farm operations under the RTFA, and while “absolute necessity” was not required, such a use must be more than just a matter of convenience to warrant protection.

Background 

In December 2014 the Township of Williamston filed a nuisance per se lawsuit against defendants Sandalwood Ranch, LLC, (“Sandalwood”) and Alec and Sarah Kolenda.  The individual defendants owned and operated Sandalwood, a commercial horse-boarding facility and lived in a house located on the property.  In addition, however, they also maintained an apartment within a building that contained horse-stalls and an indoor arena.  They then rented this apartment to a third-party for reduced rent.  In exchange, this third-party was expected to perform a necessary “night check” on the horses being boarded.  The Township filed the lawsuit because the maintenance of a second dwelling on the property violated the Township’s Zoning Ordinance.

The defendants did not dispute that the Township’s Zoning Ordinance only permitted one dwelling per farm and prohibited living quarters within the arena building.  Instead, the defendants claimed that the use of the apartment was protected by the RTFA.  First, they claimed that the apartment was within the building that contained the arena, and that, therefore, any use of the building fell within the definition of a protected “farm” as defined by § 2(a) of the RTFA, MCL 286.472(a).  Second, they claimed that the use of the apartment was “necessary” in connection with the boarding of horses, a protected activity, and that, therefore, such use was also a protected “farm operation” as defined by § 2(b) of the RTFA, MCL 286.472(b).  Both the trial court and the Court of Appeals disagreed with the defendants, rejecting the defendants’ attempt to apply § 2(a) and disagreeing with their characterization of the use of the apartment as “necessary” for protected farm operations under § 2(b).

Analysis 

To successfully assert the RTFA as a defense, a party must prove two conditions: (1) the challenged condition or activity constitutes a “farm” or “farm operation,” and (2) that the farm or farm operation conforms to the relevant generally accepted agricultural and management practices.  Section 2(a) of the RTFA defines a “farm” as: the land, plants, animals, buildings, structures, including ponds used for agricultural or aquacultural activities, machinery, equipment, and other appurtenances used in the commercial production of farm products.  MCL 286.472(a). Section 2(b) of the RTFA defines “farm operations” as: the operation and management of a farm or a condition or activity that occurs at any time as necessary on a farm in connection with the commercial production, harvesting, and storage of farm products . . . .  MCL 286.472(b).

Both the Court of Appeals and the trial court first rejected the defendants’ attempt to include the apartment within § 2(a)’s definition of a protected farm on the basis that it was located in the arena building.  As stated by the Court of Appeals, “[s]uch a holding would immunize unlawful activity simply because it occurs within a farm building.”  Sandalwood Ranch, Slip Op. at 5.  In determining whether the apartment was entitled to protection, the critical inquiry was whether “the use of that apartment building in connection with the business of boarding horses [wa]s a protected ‘farm operation’ under § 2(b).”  Id.  In other words, determining whether a particular use was protected under the RTFA required a determination that the proposed use was actually connected to the underlying protected activity, i.e., that the proposed use was a “farm operation” as defined by § 2(b).

With respect to § 2(b), the defendants were unable to factually establish that their use of the apartment was “necessary” in connection with the boarding of horses.  In interpreting the word “necessary,” the Court of Appeals did not go so far as to require that a party show that the proposed use is “absolutely necessary,” but did hold that a use that is a mere “matter of convenience” is insufficient to warrant protection as a “farm operation,” even if such use is connected to protected farm operations.  The relationship between the defendants and the third party performing the “night check” was too loose of an arrangement, and the defendants were not able to establish that the use of the apartment itself was required for a third party to perform “night checks.”  The Court of Appeals found these factors and the defendants’ use of the apartment as a means of generating rental income important in rejecting the defendants’ argument.

Summary

Sandalwood Ranch is significant because it establishes an outer boundary of the types of activities that can be protected under the RTFA.  There was no question that the use of the apartment by the defendants was connected to their protected farm operations.  There was no dispute that a “night check” would have fallen within the definition of a protected “farm operation” under § 2(b) nor does this issue appear to have been contested by the Township.  Further, by allowing a third party to reside in the building arena who assisted in performing the required “night checks,” the defendants saved themselves some time and effort in the performance of the boarding activities.  However, if a party intends to rely upon the RTFA as a means to protect certain activities or uses, then that party must be able to establish that the activity or use sought to be protected has a significant enough connection to the protected “farm operations” to be considered “necessary” for such “farm operations,” a showing that the defendants were unable to make.

 

Matthew W. Heron is a Member at Hirzel Law, PLC where he concentrates his practice in real estate, community association law, condominium law, real estate litigation, and zoning and land use.  Mr. Heron also has extensive experience in a variety of litigation matters, including insurance coverage, non-compete agreements, automotive supplier disputes, and breach of contract.  He routinely appears in both federal and state courts throughout Michigan and has argued before the Michigan Court of Appeals and the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

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