GWINN - A Gwinn family has been granted the right to continue farming operations despite a Forsyth Township zoning ordinance prohibiting such activity, according to a ruling issued Tuesday by Marquette County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Solka.
Randy and Libby Buchler, owners of Shady Grove Farm, U.P. LLC, were sued by Forsyth Township because of the location of their farm along Francis Mine Drive, just off the Johnson Lake shoreline. The area is zoned as Lake Residential, which does not allow for any type of farming activity.
The Buchlers' farm is home to eight sheep and roughly 150 chickens.
Randy Buchler, owner of Shady Grove Farm U.P. LLC, holds a chicken on his farm in May. Randy and his wife, Libby, were embroiled in a years-long argument with Forsyth Township over the location of their farm off Johnson Lake in Gwinn. The argument ended up in Marquette County Circuit Court in November, and Judge Thomas Solka issued a ruling Tuesday that said the Buchlers could continue their farming operations, as they are protected by the Michigan Right to Farm Act. (Journal photo by Jackie Stark)
The lawsuit came after years of back and forth between the Buchlers and the township concerning Shady Grove Farm.
"It has been a very long road," Randy Buchler said. "I think, because I believed in what we were fighting for so much and was persistent enough, we were able to get the outcome that we needed and our community needed and that Michigan needed."
The Buchlers contended throughout the two-day November bench trial that their farm was protected by the Michigan Right to Farm Act.
The township argued the Buchlers' farm was not in compliance with a set of guidelines outlined by the act, called "Generally Accepted Agricultural Management Practices." Any farm looking for protection by the Right to Farm Act must follow the GAAMPs that pertain to its specific operation.
Forsyth Township Attorney Kevin Koch argued during the trial that because the Buchlers chose not to adhere to one GAAMP in particular, the Site Selection and Odor Control for New Expanding Livestock Production Facilities GAAMP, they were not protected by the Right to Farm Act. The Site Selection GAAMP requires farm owners to take certain things - such as local zoning ordinances - into account when choosing where to establish their farming operation.
The Buchlers' attorney, Michelle Halley, argued the Site Selection GAAMP only applied to farms that operated on a much larger scale than the Buchlers' farm.
Solka agreed with Halley in his decision, writing also that the Right to Farm Act "clearly and unambiguously expresses a legislative intent that the state law preempts 'any local ordinance' and bars enforcement of local ordinances against any farm that complies with the Right to Farm Act."
The Site Selection and Odor Control GAAMP was introduced in 1999 along with other updated GAAMPs as part of an amendment to the Right to Farm Act.
"If the legislature intended to preclude new farms from seeking RTFA protection from zoning enforcement of ordinances pre-dating the farm it could have carved out that exception in the 1999 pre-emption amendment, but it did not," Solka wrote. "The 2012 GAAMP policy discussing the relationship between local zoning ordinances and the RTFA is not law or an administrative rule that can be enforced. This court is left with weighing a policy that suggests consideration of local zoning ordinances against a clear, unambiguous statutory right afforded the Buchlers. Weighing both in the balance the court concludes the statute controls."
Halley said she was pleased with the outcome of the case.
"It's certainly the right decision and, just as importantly, it's a very well-reasoned and legally sound decision. We're really pleased," Halley said. "(This case) has been closely watched around the country because Michigan's Right to Farm Act is one of the best in the country and had the judge gone the other way, it would have made it vulnerable and essentially gutted it."
After determining the Buchlers were protected by the Right to Farm Act, Solka wrote that the "township and objecting neighbors are not left without remedy." He said they could still file a complaint with the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, which could lead to an inspection of the Buchlers' farm to see if the farm was compliant with the applicable GAAMPs.
Koch said he was disappointed with the judge's decision but was unsure as of Wednesday afternoon whether he would recommend filing an appeal on behalf of Forsyth Township.
"The thing that bothers me the most is that (the Buchlers) effectively avoided dealing with the Site Selection (GAAMP) and they did it, I think, improperly," Koch said. "As early as 2009, the last piece of evidence I asked Mr. Buchler about (in court) was a blog that he had done where he noted that he didn't comply with the Site Selection GAAMP and they've gone around that, which is, in my initial reaction, perverse because that's where you start, with site selection. And they've successfully avoided having to comply with the Site Selection GAAMP under this ruling, kind of like they went around the first step to the whole process, which is what is objectionable."
Koch said he will make a recommendation at tonight's Forsyth Township board meeting on whether to move forward with an appeal.
The meeting will take place at 7 p.m. in the Forsyth Township Emergency Services Building.
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.