Posted by: Patricia Salkin | August 13, 2018

NC Appeals Court Holds Commercial Shooting Range Didn’t Qualify for Zoning Exemption under North Carolina “Agritourism” Statute

This post was authored by Amy Lavine, Esq.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals decided in May that a commercial shooting range operation didn’t qualify for an “agritourism” zoning exemption under the state’s zoning exemption statute, regardless of the fact that it was located on a bona fide farm property. Jeffries v. Cty. of Harnett, 2018 WL 2206370 (N.C. App. 5/15/18)

Drake Landing operated a recreational hunting and shooting preserve on part of a commercial crop farm located in Harnett County, but rather than obtaining a conditional use permit, it contended that its hunting and shooting activities were exempt from county zoning as “agritourism” land uses. Several nearby property owners disagreed with this position, however, and they requested a determination as to whether Drake Landing’s shooting operation was an exempt agritourism use under the state agricultural zoning exemption. After a protracted series of decisions and remands between the county board of adjustment and the superior court, the litigation eventually made its way to the North Carolina Court of Appeals. At issue before the court were challenges raised by both Drake Landing and the opposing property owners appealing the various decisions below.

The court first addressed the neighboring property owners’ appeal from the superior court’s 2017 decision and found that their objections were untimely. Next, the court considered Drake Landing’s appeal from the superior court’s 2014 order, which had determined that its commercial shooting activities did not qualify as “agritourism” land uses and thus were not exempt from county zoning. Key to the court’s determination of this appeal was the fact that although the statutory zoning exemption included “agritourism” at the time of the superior court’s 2014 decision, the only definition of “agritourism” provided under state law was located in a separate statute governing liability. After the superior court’s decision, however, the legislature amended the zoning exemption law in 2017 and added a definition of “agritourism,” which specified that it included “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.” Because the 2017 amendments incorporated verbatim the definition of agritourism included in the liability statute, the court determined that the 2017 amendments to the zoning exemption statute should be interpreted as merely clarifying the substance of the statutory exemption for agricultural land uses rather than changing how the exemption should apply to “agritourism” activities. It was therefore appropriate for the court to rely on the language in the 2017 amendments in reviewing the superior court’s earlier decision as to whether Drake Landing’s shooting range activities qualified for the exemption.

Because Drake Landing’s commercial shooting operation was located on property it leased from a bona fide farm, the court was required to decide whether the use of bona fide farm land for shooting activities such as continental shooting towers, 3D archery courses and ranges, sporting clay, skeet and trap ranges, rifle ranges, and pistol pits qualified as “agritourism” under the statutory zoning exemption. The court sought guidance from to the language of the 2017 amendments, which defined “agritourism” as “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.” The court emphasized the terms “rural” and “natural” in its interpretation of this provision, and it ultimately concluded that Drake Landing’s commercial shooting activities did not fall within the meaning of “agritourism.” As the court explained: “commercial shooting activities involving continental shooting towers, 3D archery courses and ranges, sporting clays, skeet and trap ranges, rifle ranges, and pistol pits neither fit as squarely within traditional notions of hunting, the definition of a “rural” activity, nor the category of a “natural” activity…. that these statutes list “farming” and “ranching” but not “hunting” implies that these shooting activities, even when done in preparation for a rural activity like traditional hunting, were not contemplated as “agritourism.””

Jeffries v. Cty. of Harnett, 2018 WL 2206370 (5/15/18).


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