Court Sides With Farmers Over Zoning
Farm Family Wins Battle Over Right to Operate Store on Their Land
Hopefully, it's the end of a long-running legal battle between multi-generational farmers, the Bernards, and the little city of Orlinda, Tennessee.
After more than a year of litigation, three Court of Appeals judges have held that the county of Robertson, Tennessee, did not illegally spot-zone to allow for the Bernards' farm store. This affirmed an earlier holding by the lower Chancery Court.
DTN reported on the family's costly struggles last year. Fourth-generation farmers in the area, the Bernards have long been proponents of diversification. The farm store was built as a way to sell products from their farm direct to consumers, as well as products from other area producers and artisans. The farm store was not built within the city of Orlinda, but it is close. The city brought a lawsuit against both the county of Robertson and the Bernards over the store and the rezoning that allowed for it.
Steve Bernard told DTN his focus is on creating future opportunities for his and Julie's young children. Originally, the family's main source of income was tobacco, but over the years, Steve said, they diversified into soybeans, corn, wheat, pigs and cattle. The meat side of the business, he said, was specifically aimed at creating a foundation the next generation could build on.
"You have to plan for the income to support a family, and they would be the fifth generation of Bernards here," he said of the children. "We fought this legal thing for them, but we also truly believe the farm store brings something positive to our community."
WHAT THE APPEALS COURT SAID
The Appeals Court agreed. In fact, on the four issues raised in the appeal, the one the court spent the most time addressing was whether the rezoning that allowed the farm store was what Orlinda's legal counsel called "illegal spot zoning." It was the long-time involvement in the community and the benefits that the court said were derived from the farm store within the community that stood out in the opinion.
Judge Andy D. Bennett delivered the opinion of the court and referred to a holding by the Supreme Court of Tennessee (Fallin v. Knox Cty. Bd. Of Comm'rs, 1983), that explained the practice of spot zoning is disfavored as being "invalid on the general ground that they do not bear a substantial relationship to public health, safety, morals, and general welfare and are out of harmony and in conflict with the comprehensive zoning ordinance of the particular municipality."
Orlinda's counsel argued that only the Bernards benefitted from the rezoning so, therefore, it was illegal. Counsel said that the property "would be a commercial island in the midst of a sea of residential and agricultural use." But because of the Bernards' long-time work in the community and their established position as consumer-direct marketers, the court disagreed.
Judge Bennett wrote the following in the ruling: "We find that the Bernards are not the only beneficiaries of the rezoning of their property. The local community will also benefit from the market, as well as local farmers who may sell their own agricultural products to citizens who frequent the store. In light of our quite limited standard of review applicable to these decisions, we find a rational basis for the rezoning resolution. Therefore, we do not find the rezoning of the Bernards' property to be illegal spot zoning."
REACTIONS AND WHAT'S NEXT
Julie Bernard spoke to DTN soon after the ruling, saying she hopes this is the end of the controversy.
"We did feel confident the decision would come back and affirm the lower court's decision," she said. "The court also said they would hold the city of Orlinda responsible for the cost of the appeal, but we aren't clear on what that will mean."
Prior to the appeal, Julie told DTN they had spent over $40,000 in legal fees to defend their farm store against the city's complaint. She said Orlinda has 30 days to file another appeal, which would go to the state's Supreme Court. She's hopeful that doesn't happen.
"There's local talk and pressure that make me think this won't go any further, but we can't be sure until that 30 days is up," she said.
"All we ever wanted to do was diversify our operation and at the same time help the community and other farmers and artisans here. We've always sold meat direct from this farm, and when we built the store, we didn't see any difference in selling it down the road and selling it from a storefront. I've done farmers markets for years, and we have a lot of contacts in the community. This brick-and-mortar store is a way to help the community as a whole. We've always thought of it as a win-win.
"Right now, as we are talking, there is a John Deere service truck parked here for lunch. If we didn't exist, he'd have to drive back into town to find something to eat, but he can come here and get back to the job sooner. People thank us every day for being here. I really don't see how we are a detriment to the community. I've always thought of this as a way to bring us together, not to tear us apart. It's hard to understand why the city of Orlinda's leaders chose to look at it the way they did."
Orlinda's city manager, Kevin Breeding, spoke with DTN for the first article on this lawsuit. He owns property across the street from the farm store but has always asserted the legal challenge was not personal. Specifically, he said that the Bernards' business is "no longer a farm store, it is an outright commercial property" and as such was not properly zoned.
Douglas Berry, attorney for the city of Orlinda, spoke to DTN after the ruling, and while limited on what he could or could not say under rules of legal ethics, he did say he was disappointed in the ruling. Asked about chances of further appeal, he said it was "not very likely" and that, at this time, it did not appear the city would pursue this.
Berry, who has practiced law for 43 years in Tennessee, told DTN he has worked in the areas of land use and zoning for more than 35 years.
See the complete original article on the lawsuit go here: https://www.dtnpf.com/…
Read the full opinion of the appeals court here: https://www.tncourts.gov/….
Victoria Myers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow her on Twitter @myersPF
(c) Copyright 2023 DTN, LLC. All rights reserved.