Opinion: Small town policies hinder entrepreneurs

C. Jarrett Diterle and Nick Zaiac

Ryan Nixon’s farm near Dexter, Michigan, has been in his family for 99 years. Despite success in traditional farming, Nixon — like many farmers — felt the financial crunch during the 2008 recession.

To help make ends meet, Nixon began looking for new ways to make money from his farm. He started by creating a corn maze for children to play in and, by 2012 — as the farm wedding craze took off — people began inquiring about his barn as a venue. Within a few years, nearly 40 percent of Nixon’s annual income was coming from wedding hosting.

But just when things looked most promising, local government officials came calling. In 2016, Nixon received a notice from Webster Township demanding that he stop hosting events in his barn. Having already booked weddings into 2017, Nixon was hopeful that he could work things out with township officials. His hopes were quickly shattered when the township refused to back down, and eventually Nixon was forced to sue.

Even after initially losing in court, the township doubled down on its war on farm weddings by further amending its zoning ordinance to limit activities like weddings, festivals and bed-and-breakfast hosting.

All told, Nixon calculates that he has spent just over $200,000 fighting Webster Township for the right to host farm weddings, including lawsuits and an ongoing petition drive to overturn the wedding ban. At a time when small-family farming has become an increasingly difficult way to make a living, we should be encouraging rather than preventing farmers from finding new ways to make money. Michigan policymakers at both the state and local levels need to rethink their approach to farm weddings and other home-based businesses.

The authors write: "Municipalities have become antagonistic toward home-based businesses of any kind, even those without visitors or customers."

Nixon’s fight is part of a larger conflict between landowners seeking to use their property in entrepreneurial ways and local governments that are resistant to such uses. Municipalities have become increasingly antagonistic toward home-based businesses of any kind, even those without visitors or customers.

Local governments like Webster Township are stubbornly attempting to apply 20th-century zoning principles to a 21st-century economy. Localities regulate home-based businesses through the zoning code by creating a list of “allowed uses” for each zone that outlines what types of businesses may open in any particular place. Some residential zones allow small retail businesses; others do not. Likewise, some agricultural zones allow owners to use their property as event space, while others — like those in Webster Township — do not. Localities also use other regulations — such as rules that bar any business with more than a trivial amount of traffic — to police property-owners simply trying to earn a living.

Banning event-hosting outright makes little sense when communities have more targeted tools available — such as noise ordinances — to manage any nuisances these small- and part-time businesses might bring.

The Michigan Legislature should proactively assert itself by clarifying that farmers are permitted to use their land for weddings and events. A bill doing exactly that was recently introduced in the Legislature but has failed to move. Michigan should also follow the lead of other states in considering broader preemption legislation for all home-based businesses to ensure that local governments are not unduly harassing entrepreneurial Michiganders.

At a time when small- and medium-sized family farms are dying away, policymakers should allow farmers to find new and innovative ways to sustain themselves. As Nixon puts it: “I am fighting for the right for farmers to use their property as they need to keep their farms viable.” Local and state government officials should get out of the way and let him do exactly that.

C. Jarrett Dieterle is a native of Michigan and the director of commercial freedom at the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank based in Washington, D.C.

Nick Zaiac is a fellow at R Street who focuses on zoning and land-use issues.