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Farm is public nuisance, lawsuit claims

Source: Muskegon Chronicle (MI), June 9, 2019
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A local livestock and produce farm is being sued by Dalton Township and the farm’s next-door neighbor, according to court documents.
Both lawsuits were filed in Muskegon County Circuit court in early May against the owners and operators of Hidden Creek Farm, 1230 W. River Road.
The lawsuits filed by the township and the farm’s neighbors, Ken and Debra Wentworth, claim the farm has become a public nuisance and a hazard to the health and safety of the township.
The public nuisance in question, one lawsuit claims, is the foul odor emanating from livestock on the property. The complaint also mentions large events planned that had the potential of attracting almost 1,000 visitors to the farm.
Dalton Township also claims the presence of a farm market on the property bucks the township’s zoning ordinance.
Both lawsuits aim to shut down the farm’s retail operation, which has been suspended by a recent injunction granted by Chief Circuit Judge William Marietti, said attorney Kevin Even, of Smith Haughey Rice & Roegge, the law firm representing the township and the Wentworths.
The injunction bars the farm from selling goods or holding events to sell them.
However, the Wentworths also want the livestock removed from the property, Even said.
There’s the possibility that the Wentworths could seek monetary damages for their alleged pain and discomfort, documents show.
Hidden Creek Farm is owned by Lee Witte and Crystal Brummans.
They were blindsided by the injunction, Brummans said.
Removing the livestock and eliminating the farm’s retail component would mean the end of Hidden Creek Farm, as it depends on the sale of produce, foliage, eggs and meat, she said.
According to the lawsuits, the farm is in Dalton Township’s R2 residential zoning district, which does not allow agricultural or retail activity.
Witte and Brummans purchased the property in 2014 and finalized their move in 2015. The farm was set up later that year.
Brummans said the farm was established with the intention of becoming a home business for the couple.
Ken and Debra Wentworth have lived at property to the east of Hidden Creek Farm for several decades.
When they moved in, Brummans said, Ken Wentworth was friendly and used his own tractor to help Brummans and Witte create produce beds to grow produce that eventually would be sold to patrons of Hidden Creek Farm.
Even said he could not confirm whether that was true and could not speak to past interactions between his clients and the owners of Hidden Creek Farm.
Since 2017, Witte and Brummans have raised pigs, cows, sheep, lambs, goats, chickens, ducks, turkeys and rabbits for “slaughter and consumption by the general public by way of retail sale,” the complaint says.
“The concern is self-evident, with pigs wallowing in the mud, rooting there, defecating there,” Even said. “It’s obvious when you’re there that the neighbors are affected by the odor.”
Brummans said the farm does not slaughter animals on the property, and at no time within the past two years did the Wentworths complain about the smell of their livestock.
Not only did Witte and Brummans raise livestock and produce, they also sold their products in a makeshift farm market on their property. In addition, they were starting to plan holiday produce sales and farm-to-table dining events.
Even said two events scheduled for May 11 and May 19 were advertised on the farm’s Facebook page. One had garnered the interest of at least 1,000 area residents who said they would attend the event.
Another 10,000 were marked as “interested,” Even added.
The trouble between Hidden Creek Farms, the Wentworths and Dalton Township began soon after the events were advertised.
Brummans said earlier events and market days were orderly and didn’t pose a public nuisance.
Even said the Wentworths and township officials didn’t agree, several cars were parked along River Road on the market days.
Ken Wentworth eventually complained to the township, and both entities filed lawsuits in Muskegon County Circuit Court on May 8.
“The township’s main complaint is that they are operating an unlawful farmers market at that location,” Even said. “That was one of (the Wentworths’) complaints, as well.”
On May 10, Even requested a temporary restraining order to prevent Hidden Creek Farms from hosting their events.
On May 14, he requested an injunction to suspend the farm’s retail activities altogether.
Both the restraining order and the injunction were granted by Marietti.
Brummans said she learned about the first complaint when she was contacted by the township. Township officials didn’t say who had complained.
Officials told Brummans that they wanted her to cease retail operations at the farm.
“I had to excuse myself because I was so overwhelmed,” she said.
When she confronted Wentworth about the complaint and subsequent lawsuits, Brummans said her typically friendly neighbor was cold.
“I said, I wish you would have stopped over if there was an issue,’ and that he didn’t need to go to a lawyer,” Brummans said. “He was really cold about it and said it wouldn’t have mattered anyway.
“It did matter because we’re not here to upset anyone.”
Brummans said the lawsuits were especially troubling because, as far as she knew, her neighbors supported their work at the farm.
One of those neighbors is Bill Weber, who lives about 100 feet west of Hidden Creek Farm. Weber has helped Witte and Brummans with special farm events in the past.
“It’s really a shame,” Weber said. “I’ve not had any odor problems. Nobody has a problem with them.”
While the Wentworths aren’t seeking monetary damages, Even said he has identified at least $75,000 related to the controversy and the alleged discomfort they’ve endured.
Another court date has not been set, but Brummans said she and Witte likely will be deposed Monday or Tuesday.
A Dalton Township Board meeting is scheduled for Monday, which Brummans said she and other residents in support of the farm plan to attend.

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