The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently had the opportunity to review a 2014 amendment to the Right to Farm Act (the “RFA”) in The Gerald P. Zarrella Trust et al. v. Town of Exeter et al., SU #2016-301-A. In that matter, the plaintiff sought a declaration that RFA, as amended, permitted them to host commercial events, including weddings for a fee, on their farmland. Specifically, the plaintiff had previously been enjoined from holding such activities, but argued that a 2014 amendment to the RFA superseded the injunction.

The RFA represents a legislative determination to preserve and protect remaining agricultural operations. The 2014 amendment provided that:

‘agricultural operations’ includes any commercial enterprise that has as its primary purpose horticulture, viticulture, viniculture, floriculture, forestry, stabling of horses, dairy farming, or aquaculture, or the raising of livestock, including for the production of fiber, furbearing animals, poultry, or bees, and all such other operations, uses, and activities as the director, in consultation with the chief of division of agriculture, may determine to be agriculture, or an agricultural activity, use or operation. The mixed-use of farms and farmlands for other forms of enterprise including, but not limited to, the display of antique vehicles and equipment, retail sales, tours, classes, petting, feeding and viewing of animals, hay rides, crop mazes, festivals and other special events are hereby recognized as a valuable and viable means of contributing to the preservation of agriculture.

The Court decided that while the first sentence of the amendment provided definitional guidance as to what constitutes “agricultural operations,” the second sentence merely provided “a list of encouraged activities that the General Assembly has deemed ‘valuable and viable’ with respect to ‘contributing to the preservation of agriculture.'” Thus, the Court determined that the listed activities were “nonagricultural operations” and subject to local town control.

Accordingly, while many of the listed activities in the second sentence of the 2014 amendment may contribute to the long term success of a farm (which would further effectuate the purpose of the RFA), this does not mean that those activities may be conducted as a right regardless of local ordinances, such as zoning restrictions. If a farm is located in a district that is not properly zoned for such activities, then the landowner will need to apply for relief from the local zoning board. Only with such relief will a farm owner be able to offer the activities listed, such as hosting a wedding for a fee. For further information about this issue or other business matters, contact Attorney Patrick J. McBurney at 401-824-5100 or email [email protected]. We welcome your comments, questions and suggestions.