Party Barn Battle
The war continues in Webster Township.
by Cynthia Furlong Reynolds
From the October, 2018 issue
Ryan Nixon is a fourth-generation Webster Township farmer whose property will achieve Centennial Farm status next year. "His great-grandfather bought the land in 1919," explains his mother, Cherie Nixon.
When Cherie's husband, Bill, was diagnosed with a life-threatening neurological illness, the couple auctioned off their livestock and most of their farm equipment. "Others have 401Ks or pension funds. Farmers have their lands and equipment--and when we have an emergency, we have to turn to the land," she says.
Three real estate development deals fell through. When the recession of 2007-2008 hit, it coincided with a boundary expansion of the Ann Arbor Greenbelt program. Bill and Cherie sold the development rights to their property--but Ryan held onto his own 330 acres.
"Farmers nowadays face challenges that others just don't understand," Cherie observes. "Most farmers nowadays need to hold at least two jobs to support their families and their way of life. They have to be creative to make a living at farming."
Her son is one of them. Ryan Nixon grows hay, pumpkins, produce, corn, soybeans, and trees on his own land and additional leased acreage. To supplement his crop income, he runs a corn maze and harvest activities in the fall. And in 2012, he renovated his family's century-old barn and opened it as a wedding venue, hosting up to sixteen events a year.
The township didn't object at the time. But in 2013, Dexter businessman Dan Waitz opened his own event space, Cottonwood Barn. The township and three neighboring families sued him, arguing that hosting weddings in agricultural-zoned areas violated the township's zoning ordinance.
After several legal rounds, the court allowed Cottonwood to continue for a time with restrictions on noise, hours, and lighting. But after losing an appeal in 2016, Waitz decided to throw in the towel.
"I lost more money than I care to say over the situation," he says. "Certainly, I paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees alone." He and his
wife recently sold the property to a family whose ambition had always been to live on a farm.
"I'm not happy about what Webster Township put us through," Waitz adds. "But it's a travesty what they're doing to Ryan Nixon."
In October 2016, Webster sent Nixon a notice demanding that he stop hosting weddings. After the township's Zoning Board of Appeals upheld the prohibition, Nixon sued.
At the time, Webster permitted loosely defined "seasonal agri-tourism" in agricultural zones. Nixon's attorney, Stephon Bagne, argued that definitions of agritourism used by the Michigan Department of Agriculture, the Michigan Farm Bureau, the Michigan Agritourism Association, and other groups include hosting weddings. The court agreed.
The township then changed its ordinance, dropping the term "agri-tourism" and specifically prohibiting weddings. Nixon responded by going door-to-door with a petition calling for a public vote on the change. He collected more than enough signatures--but this August the township board amended its ordinance again, re-introducing the term "agri-tourism" but redefining it to specifically exclude weddings. The changed language made Nixon's petitions meaningless.
Thanks to his court win, Nixon's weddings are grandfathered in. "I have the right--now--to host events," he says. "But I have to be honest with the people who call me." When he tells people making wedding plans about the township's efforts to shut him down, he says, some choose to go elsewhere.
As the Community Observer went to press, he was considering another petition. "I'm fighting for farmers in the township who need nontraditional uses like this to keep their farms alive for future generations. That's my fight," Nixon says. "I'm a farmer stepping out of a traditional farmer's footprint. I want to remain a farmer and pass my family's land on to my children.
"My neighbors' property values have risen because my parents sold their development rights, and their land will remain forever green. But newcomers to the township are trying to restrict longtime farmers' rights to earn an honest income from our farms."
Whatever the outcome of the next series of skirmishes, Nixon has an ace--make that four aces--up his sleeve. Webster may be able to limit farmers' nonagricultural businesses, but under Michigan's Right to Farm Act, it can't tell them how, or what, to farm.
If he isn't able to host weddings, "I'll make some major changes," Nixon says. "I'm looking into turning my land into a hog farm."
A new meatpacking plant has opened in Coldwater and is calling for local producers to consider hog raising.
"I wonder how my neighbors will feel if I bring in 5,000 hogs and build two new barns to accommodate them?" Nixon asks. "Will they remember that they objected to sixteen events a year in my century-old barn instead?"
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