Posted by: Patricia Salkin | October 7, 2019

Fed Dist. Court in CA Upholds Post-Injunction Amendments Pertaining to Conditional Use Permits for Use of Farm Property for Weddings

This post was authored by Matthew Loeser, Esq.

Plaintiffs Michael Fowler and Epona, LLC wanted to use their 40-acre property to host private, invitation-only weddings and related celebrations for friends and family, and to generate income to support the ongoing employment and housing of the farm employees. The property at issue was located in the Hidden Valley community, in which there are no permitted wedding venues. In 2018, the court issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting Defendant County of Ventura from: enforcing or applying certain Ventura County Non-Coastal Zoning Ordinance (“NCZO”) provisions to prevent Plaintiffs from conducting weddings on their property so long as they complied with certain conditions, and enforcing or taking any adverse action against Plaintiffs because of any Notices of Violation (“NOVs”) or similar notices that Defendant issued to Plaintiffs because of weddings. Defendant then informed the court that it had amended certain provisions of the NCZO, and that such amendments would take effect on August 17, 2018. On August 3, 2018, Plaintiffs filed a Third Amended Complaint (“TAC”), which challenged these Post-Injunction Amendments.

Plaintiffs first contended that the Post-Injunction Amendments were facially invalid because they did not provide adequate time limits for the processing of CUPs and for proceedings to challenge NOVs issued for weddings. The court rejected this position, noted that the Ninth Circuit has held that “the procedural safeguards doctrine is relevant only to explicit censorship schemes, not to content-neutral schemes.” Thus, the time limitation issue would only be contemplated in non-content neutral cases. Here, the revised permitting scheme covered any “outdoor event held in a stationary location on a privately owned parcel at which the primary event activities occur outside of structures” except for those that are otherwise regulated under the NCZO, and included “harvest festivals; carnivals; … animal events; … farmers markets.” As the scheme included other activities that were not inextricably linked with expressive activity, the court found that this was a content neutral case. Thus, the Post-Injunction Amendments did not need to guarantee that CUP decisions and decisions on appeals of NOV decisions were made “within a specified brief period.”

Plaintiffs next argued that the exemptions to the CUP requirement gave unbridled discretion to Defendant’s decisionmakers. Specifically, Plaintiffs alleged under newly added NCZO section 8107-46.3.a, a landowner may exceed certain attendee limitations only if “the event and the number of attendees are such that the use is customarily incidental, appropriate and subordinate to a principal use of the parcel” and “no consideration in any form is provided for allowing use of the parcel for the event.” Here, despite Plaintiffs contention that they sought to host “private, invite-only weddings and related celebrations for friends and family and also for the purpose of generating sufficient income to support and sustain the cultivation of the vineyards and the gardens,” they did not allege that they intended to host any weddings with more than 250 attendees for no consideration whatsoever. As there was no indication that Plaintiffs could be eligible for the exemption created by NCZO section 8107-46.3.a.2, the court found Plaintiffs lacked standing to raise a facial First Amendment challenge to that aspect of the revised CUP scheme.

Lastly, Defendant moved to dissolve the preliminary injunction the Court issued on March 9, 2018 on the ground that the Post-Injunction Amendments moot Plaintiffs’ request for injunctive relief. As the court found Plaintiff had no likelihood of success on its facial First Amendment challenge to the currently operative ordinance that governed Outdoor Events, it held that Plaintiffs were no longer entitled to an order enjoining Defendant from enforcing the CUP ordinance scheme. Despite this. Defendant did not establish that the court should dissolve the order barring it from taking adverse action against Plaintiffs on account of the prior NOVs. Here, NCZO section 8107-46.5 provided that CUP applications “shall not be accepted if two or more final violations have been issued in the last two years”. As this text did not prevent Defendant from continuing its prior, practice of relying upon closed NOVs to deny permit applications, the court only granted Defendant’s motion to dismiss as to the dissolution of the injunction barring it from enforcing the NCZO to prevent Plaintiffs from hosting weddings without a CUP.

Epona, LLC, et al. v. County of Ventura, 2019 WL 4187393 (CDCA 4/12/2019)


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