How Definitions Matter in North Carolina Zoning Litigation: “Agritourism” Example

If you are facing a zoning dispute here in North Carolina, it is crucial to hire an experienced team of North Carolina zoning lawyers to handle your case. One reason is that legal definitions matter. For example, there is state-level law that provides a general exemption against zoning restrictions for what is termed "agritourism." This is part of the general North Carolina statute that allows counties to enact zoning laws and ordinances. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 153A-340, recently revised and recodified at N.C. Gen. Stat., § 160D-903.

The old and new versions of statute specifically exempts "bona fide" farmland from being regulated by county zoning laws. Further, section 2(a) of the previous version of the statute explicitly state (emphasis added) that a "building or structure that is used for agritourism is a bona fide farm purpose ..." if certain conditions were met such as the building or structure was on a bona fide farm and the farmer held a qualifying farmer sales tax exemption certificate from the North Carolina Department of Revenue. The statute then defined "agritourism" as (emphasis added):

"any activity carried out on a farm or ranch that allows members of the general public, for recreational, entertainment, or educational purposes, to view or enjoy rural activities, including farming, ranching, historic, cultural, harvest-your-own activities, or natural activities and attractions. A building or structure used for agritourism includes any building or structure used for public or private events, including, but not limited to, weddings, receptions, meetings, demonstrations of farm activities, meals, and other events that are taking place on the farm because of its farm or rural setting."

To illuminate how legal definitions matter, let's focus on some of the activities listed and words used. Obviously, some activities like “harvest-your-own activities” have a clear and obvious linkage to farming. By contrast, wedding ceremonies have, at best, an attenuated relationship with farming. Decorative cut flowers are generally involved, rice may be thrown and usually a celebratory meal is offered, but those are about the only connections that a wedding has to farming.

Now consider whether operating a shooting range would be considered "agritourism." Note that a "shooting range" is not specifically listed as an activity that is deemed to be "agritourism." But also note the catchall phrase in the statute that says (emphasis added) "... and other events that are taking place on the farm because of its farm or rural setting." To convince a judge that a shooting range meets the definition of "agritourism," your dedicated team of North Carolina zoning lawyers will need to note the catchall phrase and then demonstrate to the judge the similarities between a shooting range and the listed activities like weddings, meetings and receptions. Hiring a good team of lawyers offers the best chance of succeeding with these types of legal arguments where legal definitions matter. Sometimes it works and sometimes it does not.

A few years ago, a North Carolina Court of Appeals was confronted with these questions and how to define the relevant legal terms. Ultimately, the court held that operating a commercial shooting range was NOT "agritourism." See Jeffries v. City of Harnett, 817 SE 2d 36 (NC Court of Appeals 2018). In the Jeffries case, the owners of a bone fide farm operated a commercial shooting range that involved continental shooting towers, 3D archery courses and ranges, sporting clay, skeet, and trap ranges, rifle ranges, and pistol pits.

In determining that a shooting range did not meet the definition of "agritourism," as we did above, the court began by emphasizing that contemplated "agritourism" activities must fit -- "in a categorical sense" -- within the groupings listed in the statute. The court looked at activities like weddings, receptions and meetings and held that these activities were tied together by "... the aesthetic value of the farm or its rural setting." By contrast, hunting and shooting activities shared no “commonality” with the activities listed in the statute. The court also emphasized what terms were MISSING from the statute. The court noted that “farming, ranching, historic, cultural, harvest-your-own activities, or natural activities” were listed, but not "hunting" and/or "shooting." The court felt that "hunting" or "shooting” could not easily be shoe-horned into any categories listed like farming, cultural or natural activities. For these and other reasons, the court held that a commercial shooting range was not “agritourism” and, as such, was not exempt from county zoning requirements.

As this example shows, zoning laws and exemptions are legally complex and depend heavily on how statutes are interpreted and how terms are defined. Interestingly enough, it seems that the North Carolina General was not happy with the Jeffries decision. Since 2018, the statute has been amended and, as of July 1, 2021, "agritourism" is defined to include "farming, ranching, historic, cultural, harvest-your-own activities, hunting, fishing, equestrian activities, or natural activities and attractions." See N.C. Gen. Stat., § 160D-903(a).

Contact Experienced Mecklenburg County Land Use Attorneys Today

For more information, and to schedule a confidential consultation with experienced and dedicated zoning and land use attorneys in Charlotte, contact Arnold & Smith, PLLC. Use our “Contact” page or give us a call at 704-370-2828. We handle land use, zoning and condemnation legal matters in Mecklenburg County and elsewhere in North Carolina. We have offices in Charlotte, Lake Norman, and Union County.