Apple Blossoms on Wunsch Farms on the Old Mission Peninsula | Jane Boursaw Photo
Apple Blossoms on Wunsch Farms on the Old Mission Peninsula | Jane Boursaw Photo

As a fifth-generation farmer and Old Mission Peninsula resident, I am deeply concerned by the lawsuit brought by the Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula (WOMP) against our township government, and by extension, the residents of our community. While I share the concerns of the 80 percent of residents who are opposed to increased traffic, density, noise, and commercialization in our bedroom and farming community, my comments on this issue will relate to my experience as a farmer in Peninsula Township.

Wunsch Farms manages just over 1,000 acres of farmland in Peninsula Township, with orchards ranging from Wilson Road to Mission Point Lighthouse. For context, this is essentially the same acreage as all our Old Mission Peninsula vineyards combined have in production. Doing right by our neighbors is not an afterthought for our farm, but a core part of our operating philosophy.

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We dispatch tractors at 4 a.m. and ship our fruit at midnight to mitigate traffic issues. When we build new structures, we seek to protect rather than obstruct the viewshed. We are proud to grow the crops that we pack and market locally on our own farms. For decades, we have sought to lead on environmental stewardship and conservation programs to ensure that our farmland is fruitful and safe for generations to come.

I have friends in the local wine industry, but I must disagree with the characterization by WOMP’s advocates and lawyers: we are not a failing or declining business, and a commercialized wine entertainment sector is not the only path forward for OMP’s agricultural land.

In the last five years, three millennial members of our family farm have purchased farms of their own on the Old Mission Peninsula, and our farm has grown from humble beginnings to manage as much farmland as the entire local wine industry combined. In the past five years, we have purchased new farms that could have been developed into five additional wineries or 60 residences, and we have planted hundreds of acres of new orchards.

Our cherry and apple farm is by no means exceptional in the township – we have neighbors who manage farms of roughly the same size as our own, as well as a neighbor whose cutting-edge approach to growing highly productive, high-quality Honeycrisp apples has quietly made his farm a mandatory stopping point for the world’s largest apple growers and global consortia of horticulture researchers.

In fact, because of the township’s Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program and the efforts of the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, residential development will not be a major threat to the viability of low-impact agriculture in Peninsula Township, provided that we continue the PDR program.

What does threaten our ability to continue protecting scenic farmland in the township is a policy environment in which bars, restaurants, hotels, and wedding venues can masquerade as agricultural businesses without even pretending to manage the ag-zoned land that they build on.

This is what the WOMP lawsuit seeks to do and has been perplexing for our family farm. How can we maintain viability if we must compete with commercial restaurant/hotel/bar/wedding complexes that would be allowed on each five-acre parcel? Will we need to build hotels and restaurants to keep farming?

The WOMP lawsuit seeks to create a lopsided playing field between wineries that say they cannot profitably manage their farms within their clearly defined bundle of use rights and low-impact agricultural producers who must compete for the scarce farmland available in the township without these newly imagined property rights.

As farmers, when market conditions for a crop are not profitable, we plant new crops, improve our operational efficiencies, or add value within the confines of the zoning ordinance. What we don’t do is try to change local land use rules to create new use rights and new commercial activities that fly in the face of agricultural zoning and the goodwill of our residential neighbors.

The zoning ordinance as it is written provides ample opportunity for farms and wineries to produce crops and add value to those crops through on-farm processing and limited on-site distribution channels, and the lawsuit and related push for increased commercialization are unnecessary and punitive to those of us who seek to operate farm businesses while maintaining a pleasant peninsula.

An expansion of winery use rights to include weddings, hotels, events, full-service restaurants, and bar service is a slap in the face to Peninsula Township residents who have invested millions of tax dollars into the PDR program and will cause measurable harm to farmers who are not interested in cashing in on wine entertainment.

Wunsch Farms on the Old Mission Peninsula | Jane Boursaw Photo
Sunset over Wunsch Farms on the Old Mission Peninsula | Jane Boursaw Photo
Wunsch Farms on the Old Mission Peninsula | Jane Boursaw Photo
Wunsch Farms on the Old Mission Peninsula | Jane Boursaw Photo

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18 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for this well done explanation and reasoning from the farmers’ perspective. It is very persuasive, giving my instinctive opinion more basis in fact.

  2. Thank you so much Barb Wunsch, you have addressed one of the most troubling aspects of the winery lawsuit in one very well presented argument. Our family has been summer residents of old Mission Peninsula since the late 1800’s. Our grandson is now the fifth generation to enjoy the benefits of this rural, agrarian, water surrounded, very special, place. Patti and I are planning to move our permanent residence to Old Mission this summer.
    Over the years we have watched the wineries expand on the peninsula in a seemingly exponential way. At first it was a relatively benign incursion. We saw the new vines being planted and marveled at the long sinuous rows of lush grapevines. The few original sites where wine tasting and sales took place were not intrusive, rather lending a quaint ambiance to the regular acres of cherry and apple trees. But lately, we have noticed and commented on the intrusive nature of the multitude of winery tours that are beginning to glut the highways and byways of our beloved peninsula.
    Patti and I think the short term desires for profit by the peninsula wineries will only cause more of a deterioration of what was once a restful, agrarian environment, and in the long run will be to their detriment. they are certainly, by this latest lawsuit, in my opinion, not acting like good neighbors, rather they are letting their obvious success go to their head by greedily demanding even more from their neighbors.
    I for one, will no longer patronize any of the wineries involved in the lawsuit, and will encourage my fellow citizens to do the same.

  3. Thank you SO much, Barb, for articulating what so many of us non-farmers believe to be true. I so hope that reason will prevail; that your perspective, that is shared by hundreds of residents on the OMP, will be considered in the decision on this lawsuit. If the wineries prevail, it will significantly affect the quality of life of OMP residents adversely. Let’s all share this letter far and wide and support our local farmers and the rural nature of the peninsula that so many of us love.
    As owner of the Neahtawanta Inn, whose clientele frequents the wineries, I believe the vast majority of my guests would side with Barb, the farmers and residents who oppose this expansion.

  4. Thank you Barb for this great explanation of this current challenge to the peninsula. We came to the peninsula 15 years ago, beyond it’s spectacular beauty, we were impressed by the PDR program. The last generation committed itself to protecting this special place. It is our responsibility to protect that legacy we all enjoy by opposing this grab by the few at the expense of the many. Brad and Amy Lyman

  5. Thank you Barb for a well-written and persuasive opinion piece . You have accurately and fairly described the tension and situation created by the WOMP lawsuit and given a much needed historical perspective. I especially loved how you argue that when crops are not profitable, farmers adapt rather try to change the land use laws up here as WOMP is trying to do . So very true. If WOMP wants more party venues, they can build them in Leelanau County where there is room and an appetite for such commercialization. Our farmers are far better friends to our home than are the winery owners.

  6. I am relatively new to the OMP but have lived here long enough to have an opinion on this issue. What I do not understand is why the winery business has not investigated other alternatives to expand its business to other uses. For example, why not have a facility in town or outside the peninsula for the uses it now wants on OMP. How about moving its new operations to Front Street or some other appropriately zoned land for bars, dining rooms, wedding venues or tee shirt shops? Let’s be smart about what makes OMP so special. Let’s not turn OMP into a wine tourist destination. We are not Napa nor should we want to be. The traffic in Napa is awful.

  7. Between the Texas cities of Austin and Fredericksburg are many wineries. It appears when driving between these two cities that the portion of the winery open to the public is separate from the vineyards and production facilities. The public tastes and buys the wine along a highway, and these facilities appear to be scattered along that highway (Texas state highway 290). Why don’t Peninsula wineries consider the added benefit of regular traffic on 31 or 72 and build proper and generous venues for weddings, dining, parties, tasting, sales, etc.?

  8. Barb,

    Thank you for your excellent summary of the history and facts involved in this expensive and abusive lawsuit. I am all for improving the venues for farmers to market their products and promote agri-tourism opportunities but I feel that the recent WOMP lawsuit against the township zoning is something else entirely. It is a wholesale conversion of Winery allowances currently setup to promote local viticulture into multiple micro commercial districts that sidestep zoning restrictions favored by most residents.

    The current generation of winery owners seem to want to compete with local farmers by bringing in more outside sources of grapes and lowering acreage requirements for their expanded business plans. If you read the details of their demands: more rental rooms, restaurants, distilleries, and retail…the equivalent of Winery strip malls may be the end result. Also, they will compete with other legacy businesses -particularly restaurants, fruit stands, a brew pub, and b & b’s already present in the area. That’s in addition to more potentially inebriated traffic, trespassing, and violations of noise ordinances.

    The current Winery ordinances are essentially previously agreed upon extra allowed commercial uses in agricultural zones generously provided by the township to make another agricultural option available . At the time, the founders of these successful businesses were grateful for the opportunities allowed. Now it seems their descendants want another generous bite of the apple.

    I think local zoning under the elected township guidance can provide resident supported changes to help maintain generations of agriculture and tourism that promote farming AND the wineries without the conversion of the peninsula into a series of fancy strip-malls and large event venues.

    Rather than forcing an expensive federal lawsuit, WOMP should continue the debate locally and let their neighbors and elected officials participate.

  9. Unfortunately, winery operators and developers occupy a larger share of Township officials’ minds than residential owners. This isn’t intentional on the part of the officials. It’s just because they see and hear from those parties more than they do from residents. Officials have good intentions but aren’t clairvoyant and don’t know how residents feel unless they speak up.
    The Township’s Master Plan is currently under review, which will, in turn, determine changes made to the Township Zoning Ordinance. To their credit, Township officials have set up a web portal (here: https://participateoldmission.com/) to allow residents know what changes are under consideration and to offer input. SPEAK UP!!!! Your opinions will make a difference in proposed changes to the winery ordinance.

  10. I agree with every point you made. I will be adding my public input to the master plan. Thanks, Jane for the invaluable Old Mission Gazette!

  11. How easy it would be to turn the OMP into a gruesome destination featuring Union Street-like bars, Front Street-like restaurants, golf courses along Seven Hills Road, and Motel Sixes up and down Center Road. That’s not the reason I moved here, and certainly not the reason I voted for the PDR. Crass commercialization is not welcome here.

  12. Barb, you have written clearly and accurately about the situation with the wineries and thank you for taking the time to compose and clarify the issue.

    There may also be another long term dimension to this that concerns all of us. The Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) was designed to protect agricultural land in our township. In two different elections residents voted to tax themselves to preserve the land and tranquility that make this a wonderful place to call home. It is possible that we may be asked to renew the PDR in the near future. If the wineries become commercial establishments with bars and entertainment venues the tranquility goes away. This may jeopardize the voters support for renewal of that program. This would be a loss of a program that makes our home special. If the wineries want commercial enterprises they can buy property zoned commercial outside of Peninsula Township.
    Eric Dreier

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