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

When going to the chapel becomes ‘going to court’

By: - September 21, 2022 6:00 am
Lynfield Gardens in Bedford County, owned by Chris and Stephanie Sarsfield. (Photo: Lynfield Gardens)

Lynfield Gardens in Bedford County, owned by Chris and Stephanie Sarsfield. (Photo: Lynfield Gardens)

The intent of the Tennessee Right to Farm Act, passed in 1982, was to keep local zoning and neighbors who don’t like farm activities from interfering with 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 comply with the state’s Right to Farm Act after the latter was amended that year. The ordinance now specifically mentions weddings as a permitted use on farm properties.

But despite the protections provided by the courts, state law, and local zoning, Chris and Stephanie Sarsfield, owners of Lynfield Gardens, a small farm just outside Bell Buckle, have been stopped from hosting weddings and other public events with a temporary restraining order granted over three years ago 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.

Restrained from doing business

The temporary restraining order arose during a challenge on the use of the driveway the Sarsfields share with their neighbor, Virginia Stewart. All but 50 feet of that driveway is on land owned by Stewart. However, the Sarsfields have a deeded easement allowing them to use all of it. Cox opined that the Sarsfields’ planned use of the driveway was likely beyond the scope of what was intended as a residential driveway. After the restraining order was set, in an effort to resolve the issue, the Sarsfields spent $30,000 to construct a new driveway entirely on their property. Yet, the restraining order remains mired in legal mud. 

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

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

The Hunt’s home is on an almost 10-acre property within the town of Bell Buckle. Stewart owns around  210 acres of open pasture land bordering the Sarsfields’ to the south and east.  

Bell Buckle’s board of aldermen got involved in the effort to stop the Sarsfields in 2017 when the Sarfields first made public their plan to host weddings and other events on their newly established 22-acre farm.  According to Chris Sarsfield, he has spent, so far, $50,000 on legal expenses.

In court filings, the Hunts and Stewart allege that the Sarsfields’ operations do not meet the legal definition of a farm and thus are not deserving of the protections of the Right to Farm Act. Bedford County’s zoning administrator conducted an inspection of the Sarsfield’s property and ruled that they do operate a farm. The Tennessee Department of Revenue has deemed the Sarsfields’s propertya farm, granting them a sales tax exemption for farm purchases.

The Sarsfields have, since they purchased their property in 2016, moved ahead with their agricultural activities. They have nine acres under active, intensive cultivation and have regular hours when the public can come onsite to pick crops and bouquets of wildflowers.  They have planted 175 fruit trees, blackberries, pumpkins and row upon row of wildflowers.  They conduct regular agritourism events throughout the year open to the public including visits from 4-H groups, pumpkin carving sessions in October, wildflower picking, botanical art sessions and classes, and hayrides. 

 “We’re not just hanging around waiting to do weddings,” Chris Sarsfield said.

Bell Buckle’s opposition

In May 2017, the Bell Buckle Board of Aldermen voted to hire two attorneys, one of them being Theodore W. Goodman, the attorney the Hunts had hired to oppose the Sarsfields. In their resolution opposing the Sarsfields, the aldermen claimed that the Sarsfields’ plans to host weddings would “bring increased and unwelcome vehicular congestion … and likely disturbances of the peace” and  “endangers the public health and welfare of Bell Buckle, and peaceful and pastoral quality of life its residents cherish…” The town’s resolution also raised the specter of raw sewage running in the streets writing “It is the public policy of the State of Tennessee to protect and preserve its surface and ground waters, which are fragile and are threatened by inadequate or improper septic systems.” 

The Hunt’s attorney, Goodman, wrote in a court filing: “Given that facility would be used by large numbers of people, it is reasonable to assume that the proposed field line would endure hundreds of flushes over a short period of time. Therefore the risk of the failure of the septic system, and the potential overflow onto the neighboring property is unacceptably high.”

The town’s resolution directed the attorneys they hired (including Goodman) to consult with Mayor Hunt.

Chris and Stephanie Sarsfield cultivate nine acres of fruit trees, berries, pumpkins and wildflowers, inviting the public in for 4-H club visits, berry-picking and pumpkin-carving. The couple also hosts weddings on their farm and that has landed them in a legal battle.  

In their resolution, the town addressed the possibility of a conflict of interest, given that the mayor was involved in the private legal battle with the Sarsfields while also consulting with attorneys the town proposed to hire. “The Town of Bell Buckle, Mayor Hunt, and Alderman (Frank) Reagor have been advised by counsel as to the nature and existence of potential conflicts of interests between the Town on one hand and Property Owners on the other, and as to the importance of avoiding any impropriety or the appearance thereof …” but the “Town of Bell Buckle has concluded independently that there is no such conflict of interest and no impropriety based on all known facts….” 

The mayor who succeeded Hunt, Ronnie Lokey, said the town has not paid any attorneys to oppose the Sarsfields. However, the town has done nothing to overrule their conflicted resolution opposing the Sarsfields.

The Hunt’s attorney, Goodman, in a suit brought in 2020 against the Bedford County zoning board, raised unusual allegations of conflict of interest against the Zoning Department  Director Chris Hunt and zoning board members saying because they and/or their family members are engaged in agriculture they are “unfit” to make determinations in cases involving agriculture.  

Take it to court

After the failed efforts to stop the Sarsfields at the zoning board, Virginia Stewart sued the County alleging that the zoning administrator was not qualified to do his job — nspecting properties — and that he did not have the authority to make decisions on zoning compliance. Stewart also alleged that the zoning board’s decisions were “arbitrary and capricious.” 

In 2019, two years after the legal battle with the Sarsfields  began, the county adopted an updated zoning ordinance.  The revised county ordinance allows, “Light entertainment activities (wedding barn, corporate retreats, wine tastings, etc) on a full-time working farm … which are subordinate and/or incidental to the farming activities.”

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

Appeals court okays farm weddings

A decision handed down last year by the Tennessee Court of Appeals reinforced the rights of farmers to lease their facilities for weddings. The court ruled, in Jefferson County, Tennessee v. Wilmoth Family Properties, that the Wilmoth family’s use of the property to host weddings in addition to their farming operations, “… is in keeping with the legislature’s obvious intent to allow the necessary supplementation of farming income from related activities as long as such activities are secondary to the commercial production of farm products and nursery stock.” 

The appeals court ruled that the gauge used to determine whether recreational events are “secondary” to farming is not a matter of dollars and cents. The court determined that farming was the Wilmoths’ primary occupation based on the number of hours Mr. Wilmoth devoted to farming as compared with the “minimal time he spent facilitating his event venue business.” In 2019, the Wilmoths had a farming income of $6,250 and farm rental income of $47,247 ( “$28,375 in rental income from weddings and other events on the property.”)   The Tennessee Supreme Court chose not to hear the case thus allowing the  Appeals Court ruling to stand as case law.

 

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Terence Corrigan
Terence Corrigan

Terence Corrigan has extensive experience in print journalism, acquired in newsrooms for more than 35 years. He has served as a reporter, photographer, editor and publisher. He started his journalism career in New Hampshire in the early 1980s and followed up in Colorado and Arizona for 15 years. Corrigan came to Tennessee in 2018 serving as editor of the Marshall County Tribune and the Shelbyville Times-Gazette. In his career, he has won numerous awards for his work. He is currently in partial retirement.

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