As barn weddings draw crowds to rural and suburban areas, the fine print of regulations often varies from farm to farm. And in Scott County, the fine print has prompted a popular orchard to sue the county, alleging that its requirements would hurt its wedding business.
A family trust on behalf of Sponsel's Minnesota Harvest Apple Orchard filed a lawsuit Aug. 5 in federal court, saying that it effectively would be prevented from hosting weddings — a major source of revenue — by county-mandated renovations that would cost at least $750,000, based on the trust's analysis.
"If we have to absorb another three-quarters of a million, we just don't have the resources," said Susan Kelly, a spokeswoman for the Sponsel family trust.
She added: "The county has a case with that one facility [the barn]. We are disagreeing that they should attack the whole entire facility — that is excessive."
The plaintiffs are asking the court to strike down the requirements on grounds of equal protection, defamation and interference with a contractual relationship. They say that the county would require the orchard to build new turn lanes from Old Hwy. 169 and install a fire suppression system in the barn as well as lodge building. It also would need to rebuild drainage fields for the septic system.
Scott County Administrator Gary Shelton said the orchard's properties in question do not meet state codes. County Attorney Ron Hocevar declined to comment.
In 2013, the orchard — which is zoned commercial — opened a red barn to host weddings and other events. The barn soon became more popular with brides than the orchard's lodge, a more traditional venue built in 1985.
The orchard now hosts 80 weddings annually for parties from 50 to 350, as well as up to 3,000 visitors daily during harvest season picking fruit, the suit said.
Earlier this summer, Scott County became one of the first governing bodies in the state to consider adding "wedding barns" to its zoning code.
"Right now, I think the wedding barn thing might come back when somebody comes out and starts pushing to open one," Shelton said. "Until that happens, I think it will just lay there kind of dormant."
The barn wedding boom
The phenomenon of barn weddings, polished by trend pieces and Pinterest, has been propelled by the charm of saying "I do" with less frills in an increasingly wired world. More barn owners are recognizing the payoff of transforming a space designed for rearing animals into a stage for a social gathering.
The investment needed to makeover a site for weddings has some property owners questioning the return. But dozens of rustic receptions are booked across Minnesota. Across the metro area permitting and zoning for barns repurposed for toasts and champagne have varied depending on location, history and property condition.
In Cottage Grove, Paula Bushilla started hosting weddings at Hope Glen Farm in 2013. After her last career at a printing company dwindled and her farm went into foreclosure, she and her husband, Michael, searched for a Plan B. They obtained a conditional use permit from the city and began hosting weddings.
"We've had a very lovely experience of having the support of all city officials and our neighbors, which I think is very rare," Bushilla said.
The turnaround was a saving grace, she said, and also revitalized an old site. Hope Glen Farms can host weddings seven days a week, though weekday weddings are rare.
If Cottage Grove "wanted historic properties to maintain themselves, they'd have to allow some sort of business ventures as well," Bushilla said. "It's very expensive to maintain historic property."
In other cities, the number of permitted large-scale events is capped. The historic Bruentrup Heritage Farm in Maplewood can annually host a maximum of 40 events, including weddings. The land is considered public and the Maplewood Area Historical Society has a 99-year lease with the city, which manages the buildings and property, according to Nicole DeGuzman, the historical society's executive director.
The site "has a positive relationship with neighbors," DeGuzman said. In more recent years, the site has become more accessible and hosts other events, like church services.
At the county level, the next barn wedding proposal will likely reopen the discussion over regulations, Shelton said. There is one venue, Rubies and Rust in Belle Plaine, permitted as a home-based business and therefore excluded from new ordinances. But the rules would apply to future applicants.
"The simple fact that you build a building doesn't mean you can do whatever you want in it," Shelton said.