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By LeAnn R. Ralph
MENOMONIE — Two wedding barn venues have filed a lawsuit in Dunn County Circuit Court seeking clarification whether a liquor license is needed when the barns are rented out for private events.
Govin’s LLC / Govin’s Meats and Berries LLC/ doing business as The Weddin’ Barn, located in the community of Rusk in the Town of Red Cedar near Menomonie, and Farmview Event Barn located in Berlin, Wisconsin, are listed as the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed January 14.
Over the past few years, wedding barns have become an increasingly important part of agri-tourism in Wisconsin.
“Agricultural-entertainment” was added to Dunn County’s zoning code in 2015 as a special exception to allow for a non-farm use of farm property, such as a wedding venue.
In addition to The Weddin’ Barn, several other wedding barn venues operate in this area, including The Yellow Barn in the Town of Hay River and Everwood Farmstead near Glenwood City.
Wisconsin law requires a liquor license for the consumption of alcohol in a “public place.”
Taverns and restaurants that sell and serve alcohol are required to have a liquor license.
Non-profit organizations — such as clubs, softball associations or the American Legion — that sell and serve alcohol on a limited basis at a special event in a public place are required to have a temporary “picnic license.”
On the other hand, “private event venues,” such as wedding barns and banquet halls, have allowed people renting them to bring and consume their own alcohol. The events are private, with attendees being invited by the host, and are not open to the general public.
The Wisconsin Department of Revenue has operated on the premise for many years that private events where the hosts are providing alcoholic beverages to their guests and are not selling alcoholic beverages do not need a liquor license.
An informal opinion by former Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel written prior to leaving office after losing the November of 2018 election to Josh Kaul, however, states that because wedding barns, banquet halls and similar venues can be rented by members of the public, the venues are, therefore, public places, and so a liquor license would be required — even though the event being held is a private event not open to the general public.
Members of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty are acting as the attorneys for the Weddin’ Barn and the Farmview Event Barn.
Creating a new class of license for wedding barns was discussed by the state’s Legislative Council Study Committee on Alcohol Beverages Enforcement in September of 2018.
Liquor licenses are issued by municipalities, and requiring wedding barns to have a liquor license could be a problem if the municipality does not have any available liquor licenses to issue.
The number of liquor licenses available in a municipality is based on the population, with one license available per 500 residents.
Since wedding barns are located in often sparsely-populated rural areas, and if the municipality has already issued the available liquor licenses, requiring wedding barns to obtain a liquor license could cause them to go out of business.
According to the complaint in the lawsuit, “The previous attorney general issued an informal letter to a lawmaker that disagreed with the longstanding [Department of Revenue] interpretation of ‘public place,’ which created the significant confusion leading to this suit.”
The lawsuit is asking for a declaratory judgement under Wisconsin Statute 806.04, which states that “courts of record within their respective jurisdictions shall have the power to declare rights, status and other legal relations whether or not further relief is or could be claimed.”
Dunn County Judge Rod Smeltzer has been assigned to the lawsuit.
Defendants listed in the lawsuit are Governor Tony Evers; Peter Barca, Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Revenue; and current Attorney General Josh Kaul.
According to the complaint in the lawsuit, in a January 23, 2018, e-mail exchange, Tyler Quam, Special Agent in Charge of the Alcohol & Tobacco Enforcement Unit at DOR, made the DOR’s position clear, “Events such as wedding receptions, birthday parties, employee appreciation events, family reunions, etc., where attendees consist only of personally invited guests known to the host and are not open to the general public, do not qualify as public places. As long as alcohol beverages are not sold, either directly or indirectly, at these types of gatherings, an alcohol beverage license is not required.”
According to the complaint, on November 16, 2018, “at the request of a legislator who is also the past president of the Wisconsin Tavern League, one of the special interests attempting to persuade the Legislature to expand the licensing and permitting requirements in law, then Attorney General Brad Schimel issued an informal letter that disagreed with DOR’s historic interpretation of the meaning of ‘public place’ under Wis. Stat. 125.09(1). According to the Attorney General’s informal letter, a ‘public place’ includes Private Event Venues because they are available for rent by the public even when the renter or lessee does not make his or her event open to the public.”
The complaint states, “The legislator who initially requested the Attorney General’s informal letter continues to pressure DOR into taking enforcement action against Private Event Venues like those owned by the Plaintiffs. That legislator sent a follow up letter to DOR on December 11, 2018, asking for ‘an update regarding how the Department of Revenue intends to respond and implement’ the Attorney General’s informal letter.”
According to the complaint, “The Attorney General’s informal letter’s conclusions are illogical. Private property does not become a ‘public place’ when it is rented out to members of the public. If that were the case, then hotel rooms, apartments and vacation cottages would be public places — because they are all available for rent by the public — and the owners and tenants/lessees of such places could [only] consume alcohol on the premises — or serve it to their private guests … if they had a retail liquor license or permit under Wis. Stat. Ch. 125.”
In an explanation of why the plaintiffs are seeking a declaratory judgement, the complaint notes, “If the Attorney General can come to an opposite conclusion without any change being made to the law itself, then ordinary persons, law enforcers, and law adjudicators cannot possibly be expected to understand what conduct the statute is prohibiting.”