California Permitting Scheme for Commercial Weddings Held Unconstitutional

Michael Fowler and his company Epona, LLC (of which he is the sole member) own  a 40-acre piece of land located in Ventura County, in southwest California.  Though the land is zoned for agricultural use, Fowler built a garden on the property he wanted to use to host weddings and related events.

The Epona wedding venue

A county ordinance states that, for this purpose, Fowler must seek a Conditional Use Permit, or CUP, and the applicant must provide the proof that all standards to receive a CUP have been met.  Though county agencies found no grounds to deny Fowler’s permit, several neighboring landowners complained at a public hearing and the County Planning Commission subsequently denied Fowler a CUP.  The Commission based its denial on three statements: that the venue is incompatible with the rural community, it has potential to impair the utility of neighboring properties, and it has the potential to be detrimental to public health, safety, or welfare.

Fowler appealed this decision both to the Board of Supervisors and (ultimately) the U.S. District Court, arguing that this permitting scheme violated his First Amendment right to freedom of speech.  He argued that the ordinance gives officials “unbridled discretion” in issuing the permits because there are no definitive, objective standards for granting a permit and there is no specified timeframe in which a permit must be issued or denied.

After review, the Court found that many of the standards by which officials are to judge an applicant were too abstract and contained language which was not sufficiently defined elsewhere.  Additionally, the Court found that the County’s ordinance did not specify any timeframe for permit approval or denial when considering weddings and events.  The County’s defense rested on an ordinance which only pertained to development projects.  The Court therefore found that the ordinance conferred unbridled discretion upon County officials and thereby unconstitutional.

Case: Epona, LLC v. Cty. of Ventura, No. 17-55472 (9th Cir. Dec. 7, 2017) (opinion here)

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