Webster Township Clarifies The Meaning Of “Seasonal Agri-tourism”

By Lynne Beauchamp, lbeauchamp@thesuntimesnews.com

A special meeting of the Webster Township board took place August 9, in part, to clarify amendments to zoning ordinance language regarding seasonal agri-tourism.

After a lengthy discussion with the public and among board members, the board adopted a resolution in a 4-3 vote (Richard Kleinschmidt, Barbara Calleja and Gary Koch casting nay votes) that would rescind previous amendments to the Agricultural District (AG) – permitted uses, that was adopted by the Webster Township Board on September 19, 2017.

The amended ordinance defines seasonal agri-tourism as “land uses and activities that are seasonal, community-oriented, open to the public, related to farming and agriculture, and operated for education and enjoyment, which entail participation, earning or involvement in the farming activities of a farm operation, and which meet all of the following criteria”…the resolution goes on to specify the criteria which includes agricultural activities of a farm, taking place primarily in an outdoor setting and mostly during daylight hours as well as consideration of noise and traffic involved with the farm activity. Accepted seasonal agri-tourism includes hay rides, sleigh rides, corn mazes, pumpkin patches, u-pick operations and Christmas tree farms.

Seasonal agri-tourism does not include, according to Webster Township, event barns, wedding barns or other facilities that host parties, receptions or special events, restaurants or cafes, lodges, bed and breakfasts, campgrounds or other facilities hosting overnight guests, concert, fairs or festivals game/hunting preserves, and other activities not meeting the criteria included within the definition of “Seasonal Agri-tourism.”

Prior to Webster Township defining and redefining “Seasonal Agri-tourism”, Ryan Nixon of Nixon Farms began hosting events at the family farm barn on Daly Road in 2012.

Nixon’s lawyer, Stephon Bagne, said because the township had not defined agri-tourism in the ordinance, Nixon was permitted to host wedding barn events. Bagne said Nixon was told by the township’s zoning compliance officer that the use was legal, then, Bagne further said, the township ordered Nixon to stop having these events. Nixon went before the zoning board of appeals to get a definition of “agri tourism” since it had not been defined in the ordinance.

Nixon took the township to court over the event barns. Bagne said the zoning board of appeals created a definition that excluded “agri-tourism” and was contrary to the law, where a judge reversed the order in favor of Nixon Farms. Since, the township has appealed the decision and the fate of wedding barns for the Nixon Family will be left for a judge to decide once again. A trial is set for September 2018.

Nixon said he currently has weddings scheduled at the barn, based on the judge’s prior decision, and continues to book events based on that decision.

Nixon said he has fought with the township on the issue of event barns to help maintain his farm’s viability. He said the farm has been in his family for five generations and a large portion of the farm’s development rights, 265 acres, were sold in 2009 to the Ann Arbor Greenbelt. Nixon has purchased some of the remaining land and rents more from his mother. At one point, prior to selling development rights, developers were interested in purchasing part of the farm and developing a manufactured housing community. Nixon said this was during the time his father, Bill Nixon, had been diagnosed with a terminal illness. He said the proposal was denied by the township and the Greenbelt offer was accepted.

Nixon said he does continue to grow crops, himself, on the farm. To supplement his income from farming, he has a corn maze in the fall, does construction/excavating in addition to having the event barn.

While many people spoke in favor of the Nixon event barn, many have spoken against and some have admitted they are afraid to speak out for fear of being harassed.

One resident, who wished to remain anonymous, said the events at the barn are loud and disruptive to the rural community.

John and Barbara Manney live on Daly Road, just down from the Nixon Farm and Barbara said at first she wanted to support the Nixon Family and was okay with the event barn. The Manney Family have resided on Daly Road since 1986 and Barbara said she always liked the Nixon Family. She said lately, the noise of the event barn has been too much for her to handle and has a daughter that can not sleep at night on the weekends because of the noise of the music from the events.  Barbara said she would continue to be okay with the event barn if she did not have to hear it.

On August 15, the Webster Township Planning Commission met to discuss the possibility of adding event barns as a special use in the agriculture district. After much discussion between commissioners and hearing public comments, the planning commission voted 4-2 to postpone indefinitely the discussion of adding event barns as a special use in the agricultural district. Commissioner, John Westman, said the discussion should be postponed until after the Master Plan is revised.

Planning Commission Chair, Andrea Zamansky said she supports the commission’s decision as the township continues to do what is in the best interest of all its residents.

Seth Kinker

Reporter/Digital Media for The Sun Times News

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