January/February 2019 Issue
Also in this issue: New Supreme Court Case Expands the Known Danger Exception to Governmental Immunity | Towns Are Not Obligated to Construct Roads to Standards Set Out in Wis. Stat. §82.50
Do Wedding Barns Need Alcohol Licenses? Conflicting Analyses at Issue in Lawsuit
Jared Walker Smith | 02.06.19
Whether alcohol licenses are required for wedding barns continues to remain uncertain as a lawsuit is filed against the Evers Administration over the prior administration’s conflicting interpretations of Wisconsin’s alcohol licensing laws.
Wisconsin’s rural communities are seeing a growing demand by land owners and visitors to have barns converted into wedding venues — so called “wedding barns.” While weddings inside barns may be a new trend, the consumption of alcohol at weddings is a long tradition. With limited and conflicting guidance from the state, the determination about whether or not state law requires a wedding barn to hold an alcohol license has been delegated to the local municipality. However, recent events suggest that a definitive answer, whether from the executive, judicial, or legislative branch of state government, may be coming.
On November 16, 2018, former Attorney General Brad Schimel issued an informal letter analyzing whether event venues rented for private events must seek an alcohol license to allow the consumption of alcohol beverages at the venue. Specifically, the AG was asked to interpret whether the term “public place” under Wis. Stat. § 125.09(1) includes an “event venue” that may be rented for a “private event (e.g., a wedding, birthday party, or retirement party),” ostensibly a reference to wedding barns. With limited exceptions, consumption of alcohol beverages at an unlicensed “public place” is prohibited. In an informal and nonbinding analysis of the statute, the AG concluded that these event venues likely qualify as “public places” under Wis. Stat. § 125.09(1). This interpretation, if adopted by the Wisconsin Department of Revenue (DOR) or local enforcement authorities, would expose owners and possibly renters of unlicensed wedding barns where alcohol is served or consumed to enforcement actions and penalties.
However, on December 28, 2018, the then DOR Secretary Richard Chandler responded to a clarification request from Representative Rob Swearingen. In his response, Secretary Chandler stated that AG Schimel’s “informal analysis is different from the longstanding application of the statutes” by the DOR. According to Secretary Chandler, DOR’s position has been that if an event is private, “meaning attendance is limited to invited guests, it is not a public event” and the location is not a “public place” at the time of the event and does not require an alcohol license for that event. Secretary Chandler concluded “[i]n short, if a place is rented for an event that is a private event, and if there is no sale of alcohol there, a liquor license is not required.” Due to the coming changes in the executive branch of state government, then Secretary Chandler did not change DOR’s position or enforcement policy based on AG Schimel’s letter. Secretary Chandler recognized that the new administration will be able to “continue or change DOR’s position in this area.”
Recent Fact Sheets published by the DOR still detail that consumption of alcohol beverages in an unlicensed public place is prohibited, but they do not describe what venues qualify as a “public place.” Consumption of carry-in alcohol on an already licensed premise remains prohibited and an owner of a licensed premise must legally purchase any alcohol consumed on premises from an authorized source. This sets up a situation where a licensed wedding barn cannot allow carry-in consumption, but an unlicensed wedding barn may be able to.
In a new twist, on January 14, 2019, a group of wedding barn owners represented by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty sued Governor Tony Evers, Attorney General Josh Kaul, and Peter Barca, the secretary-designee of the DOR, over the regulation of wedding barns. In Farmview Event Barn, LLC, et al. v. Tony Evers, et al. (Dunn County Circuit Court, 19-CV‑9), the plaintiffs argue that wedding barns are “Private Event Venues” that are exempt from regulation as “public places” under Wisconsin’s alcohol beverage licensing laws. Citing AG Schimel’s and Secretary Chandler’s competing interpretations, the plaintiffs in Farmview Event Barn, LLC seek a declaratory judgment from the court to resolve the dispute. While the Tavern League of Wisconsin (TLW) has not issued a statement as of this writing, the TLW has previously supported AG Schimel’s analysis in statements made to the press.
As of this writing, the Evers Administration, AG Kaul, and Secretary-designee Barca have not stated a position on the dispute. Local municipalities remain the principal issuers of retail alcohol licenses and enforcers of Wisconsin’s retail alcohol license laws. With conflicting guidance from the state, local municipalities are still left to determine whether or not to require wedding barns to obtain alcohol licenses and whether or how to enforce existing ordinances. Municipalities with wedding barns, or potential wedding barns, should pay attention to this issue as it continues to unfold.
— Jared Walker Smith
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