Administrative Law: Exhaustion Required for Administrative Bona Fide Farm Determination

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While the term “bona fide farm” is used by various government agencies to express their version of whether a certain type of farm is legitimate, the term has but one statutory application in North Carolina:  as a zoning exemption for farm and forestry use under NCGS § 153A-340. A recent unpublished (without precedent) opinion by the North Carolina Court of Appeals held that anyone seeking a declaration by the county as to whether certain activities qualify a tract as an exempt bona fide farm must exhaust all administrative remedies before taking a particular case to superior court.

In Clement v. Cumberland County, COA19-414 (N.C.App 2019), the court reviewed a Cumberland County Superior Court’s decision to dismiss a case where a neighboring landowner questioned – in an email inquiry – whether an ATV Park qualified as “agritourism” under the agriculture definition in the bona fide farm exemption. The county zoning administrator issued an response stating that, because the land in question was in the present use value property tax program and engaged in silviculture, that it qualified under N.C.G.S. §105-277.3. Later, following the case of Jeffries v. Cty. Of Harnett, ___ N.C. App. ___, 817 S.E.2d 36 (2018) (reviewed here) which held a shooting range does not qualify as agritourism under the N.C.G.S. §106-581.1 and thus is not an exempt bona fide farm operation, the neighboring landowner requested a new determination, which the county – via the county attorney – declined. The neighboring landowner filed suit against Cumberland County, requesting a writ of mandamus, which is a court order requiring certain action to be undertaken by a counter-party.

The Clement judges (Berger, Inman and Hampson) held that such a determination request must continue its way through the zoning appeals structure in the county before a court may assert subject matter jurisdiction over the matter. The court stated that “'[a]s a general rule, where the legislature has provided by statute an effective administrative remedy, that remedy is exclusive and its relief must be exhausted before recourse may be had to the courts.”’ (citing Presnell v. Pell, 298 N.C. 715, 721, 260 S.E.2d 611, 615 (1979). The court held that such a zoning determination – requested by the proper party, including neighbors impacted by such – is an appealable official decision.

Relying on the case of Meier v. City of Charlotte, 206 N.C. App. 471, 698 S.E.2d 704, (2010), the Clement court laid out the four elements of an appealable official decision:  “(1) the response provides a determination made by an official with the authority to issue definitive interpretations of the zoning ordinance; (2) the response concerns the manner in which a provision of the zoning ordinance should be applied; (3) the response concerns a specific set of facts; and (4) the response is provided to a party with a clear interest in the outcome of a specific dispute.” (citing Meier at 479, 698 S.E.2d at 710). The court held that the initial request for a determination met these requirements, and thus required an appeal – under the Cumberland County Zoning Ordinance – to file their appeal to this decision within 30 days. (Thus, the followup inquiry to the county attorney did not constitute a new request, and so failure to appeal the initial determination barred the neighbors from further review of the matter.) Because the neighbors did not file an appeal of the zoning board’s determination, and now were barred from doing so by the zoning ordinance appeal window, they may not now ask the court to issue a writ of mandamus ordering the county to issue an opinion.

(Note that the NC General Assembly has attempted to rectify the result in Jeffries v. Cty. Of Harnett in the draft bills of the “2019 Farm Act,” declaring that shooting ranges are indeed agritrourism)