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New liquor law overhaul, wedding barn regulations, headed for lawsuit

Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty claims law was poorly drafted, open to a number of legal challenges

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A row of beer glasses for tasting
QuinnDombrowski (CC-BY-SA)

A conservative legal organization says it will file a lawsuit challenging a sweeping overhaul of state alcohol regulations that was signed into law by Gov. Tony Evers this week.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, or WILL, said it has been talking with wedding barn owners who claim they’re being forced out of business by the changes.

The liquor law signed by Evers on Wednesday creates a new Department of Revenue division to enforce violations. It expands retail options for breweries, wineries and distilleries and clarifies the definition of “public spaces” prohibited from selling alcohol without a permit.

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Under the new law, the definition includes spaces that are available to rent for social gatherings, like wedding barns, but excludes hotel rooms, vacation rental properties, campsites and tailgating space at sports facilities. Before the change, wedding barns had been considered private venues.

The legislation garnered support from groups ranging from the state’s Tavern League to craft brewers and distributors, who argue the changes modernize archaic alcohol regulations and put everyone on an even playing field.

But Jean Bahn of the Wisconsin Agricultural Tourism Association argues lawmakers made a conscious decision to provide exemptions for some public places and not others when it comes to alcohol consumption. She thinks it was aimed at limiting competition from wedding barns like the one she owns.

“I just feel like that’s a big change to be going from a private property with private events and renting space to suddenly becoming a public place,” Bahn said.

Under the new law, wedding barn owners have two options. They can get a new “no sale event venue” permit or obtain a liquor license.

The no-sale permit would allow patrons to provide their own alcohol as they have in the past, but the venue would only be allowed to operate once a month with a maximum of six events per year.

If wedding barn owners opt for a liquor license instead, it would allow them to sell alcohol at their venues as often as they’d like.

Bahn said she plans to opt for the no sale permit rather than figure out how being licensed to sell alcohol might affect her local zoning permit and insurance. Her organization has been in talks with the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty about legal options.

WILL: Legal challenge to liquor law coming

WILL Deputy Counsel Lucas Vebber told WPR the current law was poorly drafted and “left itself open” to legal challenges from a number of different angles.

“But I think it’s safe to say that we do intend to challenge it in court,” Vebber said.

Veber says the new definition of public place, as it relates to new rules about the consumption of alcohol, is “very broadly worded.”

“So if you want to rent an Airbnb and have a family reunion, you’re going to have some friends over on a Saturday night when you’re up north, you cannot serve alcohol at the event without a liquor license that falls under chapter 125,” Vebber said.

Vebber also notes the liquor law bill was amended to give wedding barn owners two years to decide on how to proceed with permitting, which he said is a “good thing.”

Bahn said the new liquor law raises a lot of questions at the local level. She said wedding barn owners often operate under conditional use permits issued by small towns and it’s unclear whether selling alcohol outright would be allowed under those existing agreements.

“We have one member in our organization who lives in a dry township,” Bahn said. “So, if he wants to continue and the state says, ‘Well, here, we’ll give you a liquor license.’ What good is it?”

While wedding barns have been vocal critics of the alcohol law overhaul from the moment it was introduced, the measure enjoyed bipartisan support in the Legislature, passing the Senate on a 22-11 vote and passing the Assembly 88-10.

When he signed the plan into law, Evers said the modernization would help the state’s regulations keep up with an ever-evolving industry.

“Ensuring that our state’s regulations and policies are modernized and updated to meet this ever-evolving industry remains a priority for the safety of consumers, producers, and Wisconsin as a whole,” Evers said in a written statement.

Evers’ office noted the two-year delay in the plan for wedding barns in a press release accompanying the statement, calling it a “notable exception” to the new law.

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