(Editor’s Note: At their meeting last week, the Township Board discussed the changes to the Zoning Ordinance regarding the Farm Processing Facilities Amendment, and then voted unanimously to approve the changes. Read the amendment here; changes from previous versions are marked in red. After the meeting, Peninsula Township Supervisor Isaiah Wunsch sent me the following piece, noting, “Now that we have completed the repeal and replacement of the winery chateau and farm processing ordinances, I am able to say some things that would have previously been improper, as they may have influenced the votes of other board members.” Read on for Isaiah’s statement… – jb)
Since June of 2022, I have served as your township supervisor. During that time, I have listened to attacks both defamatory and inflammatory from pro-development voices, but have focused on understanding and protecting the financial and policy interests of our residents rather than arguing. I have sought to answer questions about the proposed ordinance by any of the pro-development folks who have made the effort to reach out, and have been puzzled by some of the misinformation that the most adamant members of this group have spread to their neighbors.
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While I have listened to and considered the opposing voices, particularly within the township’s agricultural community, I must respectfully disagree with some of them. Now that the vote has been cast, I want to discuss my support for the ordinance amendments, and I will do so here.
In addition to serving as the township supervisor, I am also the CEO of one of the larger farming operations in Peninsula Township. The assertion that this process has not considered the interests of the agricultural community is simply not accurate—in addition to managing my own growing family farm for over a decade, I have listened to the opinions of many of the township’s farmers as the ordinance language has evolved and moved its way through the process. I know that some of the farmers who wish to sell their land to winery developers are unhappy with the proposed changes, but those who have a long-term commitment to maintaining their farm operations have generally been supportive of the changes.
The changes that we voted on this week have been in the works for nearly a year: last year we created a Citizen’s Agriculture Committee that sought to resolve the key issues raised in the lawsuit with WOMP, to address farmers’ concerns about equity between uses, and to align policy with the township’s Master Plan and the results of our most recent community survey. The newly adopted ordinance language is the culmination of these changes.
The Citizen’s Ag Committee was comprised of two board members, three farmers, and six residents. We held three seats open for winery or vineyard representation throughout the entire process, but the wineries chose to abandon their former attitude of civic engagement and have instead sought legal and financial redress through the courts rather than sitting down with their neighbors to talk through solutions that would be workable for all members of our community.
Addressing the key issues raised in the lawsuit is not discretionary for the Township Board. While we believe that we will ultimately succeed in our defense of the existing winery ordinance language that the wineries themselves drafted and advocated for years ago, the defense of the ordinance to date has significantly impacted the township’s ability to handle other services for our residents and has cost the township hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. The cost of defending the township from WOMP is borne by you and I alike, and I will not allow future generations of township leaders or taxpayers to bear these costs again. The new language will be much more efficient to defend, and provides clarity for business owners and policymakers alike.
Because the most vocal opponents of the new zoning ordinance language have made a number of misstatements, it is important to address several misconceptions that have been spread in recent months:
First, the township did not back out of a settlement that board members had supposedly agreed to with WOMP, and at no time have we had an exit ramp that would have spared the average household in the township from the risk of tens of thousands of dollars in potential legal damages. The proposed settlement that was presented to and rejected by the board was the result of attorney-only negotiations, and as noted in October 2021, it was an “all or nothing” proposal.
WOMP has made the choice to continue fighting the lawsuit a simple necessity—in light of their outrageous damages claims, the township’s ongoing legal defense not only aligns with the policy outcomes desired by residents, but is a clear fiduciary duty of board members. The new ordinance will not adversely impact me as a young farmer, but a $50,000 tax bill for damages related to the WOMP lawsuit certainly would.
Second, the suggestion that the new language will adversely impact the ongoing operations of any farm, farmstand, or winery is simply not true. In fact, the new ordinance language does not apply in any way to farms, farmstands, or wholesale food processing venues—it seeks first and foremost to create an efficient and unambiguous regulatory environment for agritourism venues for on-site processing, sale and consumption of our farmers’ agricultural products.
Third, because much of the farmland and open space in the township is protected by conservation easements that you, the public, have overwhelmingly supported and paid for, the tradeoff between converting farmland to winery use versus residential development is a false equivalency. Farmers who wish to sell all or some of the value of their real estate may choose to sell conservation easements at full market value using the township’s recently re-approved PDR program. While the owners of unrestricted farmland could choose to sell their real estate to developers rather than protecting it through a conservation easement, this would be a decision based wholly on personal preferences rather than a decision dictated by economics.
Finally, I apologize for the lack of communication from the Township Board over the course of recent months. The combination of our involvement in re-writing these sections of the zoning ordinance combined with the ongoing litigation with WOMP prevents us from saying all of the things that we would like to about these issues. Because we serve the public and because it is of paramount importance to us to protect you from the risk of financial harm or egregious nuisance issues, we are perhaps more cautious about weighing in on these issues than are some other members of our community.
Even when we are silent on these issues, please know that we are working diligently to resolve them in a way that will be acceptable to all members of our community.
-Isaiah Wunsch, Peninsula Township Supervisor