Frosted Cherry Trees at Johnson Farms on the Old Mission Peninsula
Frosted Cherry Trees at Johnson Farms | Jane Boursaw Photo
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(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

11 COMMENTS

  1. A well written piece and thank you for having the judgement to hold off on personal opinions as an elected official until the vote was held. Your action demonstrates the highest ethical workings of government.

  2. This provides much needed clarity to the issues surrounding the lawsuit. Many thanks to Isaiah for setting the facts straight. We are very fortunate to have Isaiah and a strong board watching out for township residents.

  3. While what Isaiah says is mostly true, what is not true and what he leaves out is important to understanding farmers’ opposition to the new ordinance. First, it is not true that all wineries and vineyard owners rejected serving on the Agriculture Committee. I own 12 acres of grapes and I asked to be on the committee or at least be allowed to participate from a remote location. Both requests were denied and the second one denied specifically by Isaiah. Second, WOMP was willing to compromise with the Township. The agreement worked out between representatives from both sides was indeed a take it or leave it agreement. After all it was the result of negotiations between the two side. It does not make sense to negotiate something if one side then has the right to change it. The Township has already lost part of this case twice. I can tell you now if they appeal that decision on the Commerce clause they will lose again. With respect to all the wineries negotiated the old ordinance that is only partially true. Only some of the 11 wineries on the Peninsula were even around when the ordinance was enacted.

    As far as the farmers opposition to the ordinance Isaiah stated that farmers wanting to keep their land as a farm could sell their development rights at full value. My problem with this is that full value after the new ag processing ordinance is lower than full value before the ordinance. The highest and best use for Ag property on the peninsula is either housing or Ag processing. By taking away Ag processing or at least making it more expensive to implement and less financially viable the Township has decreased the value of the farmland. In many cases the farm’s value is the retirement income for the farmer. Farmers who have been losing money for years growing and marketing their cherries now find the value of their farms has decreased. Isaiah and his dad should be commended for the business they started and grew. I did notice that the ordinance has no impact on their operation as they don’t meet the township definition of Ag processing.

    The new ordinance states that anyone who wants to undertake an Ag processing operation can only buy 35% of their product from farms outside of their control. Since I started growing and selling cherries, I have sold my cherries to six different processors. None of those processors would have been able to purchase my cherries because they would not have grown enough to offset these purchases. Isaiah knows this but neglects to admit it.

    By limiting the ability to build a new winery or food processing operation the ordinance limits the farmer’s ability to grow a profitable crop. Farming and processing go hand in hand and throughout the state food processing takes place on Ag zoned land and is located near where the product is grown. Distance from harvest processing affect cost and quality and current economies of scale require a symbiotic relationship between famer and processor whether it is grapes and wine or cherries and cherry concentrate.

    I appreciate the fact that Isaiah put this out there. If gives me a chance to better understand his thinking and to respond to it. My suggestion to him is to include any interested farmer in the next wave of ordinance changes that the Township Planner has said is upcoming. I believe that by including all sides in the discussion rather than just sycophants will make for a better and more enduring ordinance.

  4. Reply to isiah’s rationalization of His Anti farmer Vote

    I do not pretend to be a large scale farmer but I do farm a small 5 acre farm consisting of three varieties of apples, a vineyard and raspberries and blackberries. In the past I have also grown a variety of vegetables which I sold to local restaurants, i have sold my goods in local farm markets and on my stand. I point this out because I have a deep respect for farmers both large and small having witnessed first hand the difficult nature of farming on the peninsula. Who can forget the devastation many of us experienced with the monster wind storm several years ago. I lost most of my vineyard crop that year. Last year hail damage ruined my otherwise great apple crop causing the value of the apples to tank.
    So as a fellow farmer I have a different perspective than you. I respect your right to voice your opinion. However, claiming that the many farmers who voiced objection to the ill conceived processing ordinance are pro development is an attempt to discredit their well stated objections.
    Many of these farmers have sold their development rights so they certainly are not pro development.
    Even if that is true for a few, what is so wrong with being pro development. Most people would not be living on the peninsula if it were not for developments throughout the peninsula. So let’s stop casting development as some big bad wolf.
    Now for some of the arguments you make.
    Whether or not the wineries participated in the development of the ordinance, it does not further the interests of the farmers.How many of the provisions of the ordinance had unanimous support of the farmers on the committee. I believe there was not unanimous farmer support for increasing the acreage requirements for example.
    How does increasing the acreage requirements for retail operations not cut out a lot of farmers who do not meet the more than 20 percent increase in acreage requirements. They are now closed out of retail processing. This is anti small farmers. No question.
    The new requirements for limiting outdoor seating to 50 people bears no resemblance to realistic utilization of outdoor space.this will limit not only sales but may be a breaking point of whether a farmer decides to open a processing facility at all.
    Further the previous ordinance had retail processing facilities as a matter of right. That no longer is true. He or she must now go through a long and tedious process that can take years. Ask anyone who has tried to get sn SUP.
    The impact of all of the changes made to the processing ordinance is to discourage investment in a processing facility. No economic analysis was ever done on the impact of this 20 page ordinance..
    On the night of the vote we witnessed some major changes being made as discussions were under way.
    None of these had ever been vetted by the public or the planning commission. This action flies in the face of the spirit of open government and may violate the due process requirements of any . ordinance.
    You seem to argue that your fiduciary duty is to keep this lawsuit going rather than settle it. Your first and foremost fiduciary duty is to not bankrupt the township. What motivates the unwillingness to reach an agreement with the wineries. It seems noise and traffic can be abated without costing me $50,000. I have heard no other reasons why this lawsuit goes forward. I have to wonder how you can claim you will ultimately prevail when the judge has ruled against the township as recently as a few days ago. You never come clean with township folks on these rulings. Just wondering why not.
    Lastly, to argue that the agreement was negotiated without township knowledge either means the township shirked its responsibility or is untrue. No client should give their lawyer unfettered discretion to negotiate on its behalf. This claim belies belief..

  5. Thank you so much for your explanation, and your thoughtful presentation of the issues. We feel Peninsula Twp is a unique community that is a healthy combination of residential recreational and agricultural opportunities. We don’t want to see the delicate balance of these three sectors diminished by unwise commercial development.

  6. Not do I want to see ag destroyed by unwise ordinances that do not have the support of the ag community or that might bankrupt us.

  7. Good article and equally thoughtful comments. For such a agricultural township/peninsula, it is surprising to me how the ordinance seems clearly biased toward only “big farm operations” and penalizes small family farms. Why? I have also been wondering about the special interest group aligned with the Board on fighting with WOMP. Maybe an article on who they are and who is funding them would be interesting.

  8. While it seems that for the most part some of the Township players in this new ordinance are trying their best to be “fair”, it also seems that the final drafters and voters are neglecting the interests of the smaller farm owners/operators. I own a two-acre vineyard and am responsible for another small, three-acre vineyard. I’ve been growing for 12 years now; it’s difficult enough without government complications.
    With the passing of the new “winery” ordinance (let’s call it by its real and practical intended purpose), the small winegrower on the Peninsula is left with a dramatically-reduced market. Since most of the current wineries, except the largest, will be hard-pressed to manage the balance of the 70-30 percent split of self-grown/purchased fruit to achieve the tricky balance of wholesale + retail wine product choices (the public demand is for several wines of various styles), the fruit from the smaller (less than 5 acres) vineyards will be harder to incorporate into their annual purchase portfolio. This creates an interesting irony (artificially created by the new ordanance rules): the finer, highest quality fruit from the smaller vineyards is harder to purchase (by the wineries) or to sell (by the growers).
    I would like a clear and honest explanation as to the reasoning behind the 70/30 percent rule for the source of the fruit for producing wines by Peninsula wineries as now regulated in the Ordinance. When discussing this with any downstate wine industry colleague they are totally confused why this was so designed if it is to support farming, as am I.

    • Thomas, This is exactly the point I and others made to the Trustees.  Their answer was to make a marginal change moving from 70-30 to 65-35.  My conclusion is they just don’t understand business and especially the symbiotic relationship between farmer and processor.  When I say they I mean both the Board, the Planner and the vocal part of PTP.  It is sad because the end result of these changes will not be what they intended.

  9. Tom
    Simply put the drafters have no explanation why they came up with the figure. Some of these figures were pulled out of the air. I attended many meetings where the planner would simply say how about x and no one would discuss why at all or ask her how she arrived at certain figures. There is never any discussion by the board members either.
    They dont want to have to explain anything they shut off any questioning as out of order. Isiah loves to gavel people who dare to ask a question of a member or go over a ridiculous three minute allowed time limit.
    It got so absurd at the last meeting that he would not allow a member to read my statement without subtracting that time from the readers three minutes.
    Nor would he allow me to read my statement remotely via an amplified i phone. What the hell is he so afraid of.
    These meetings are very disheartening and do not allow for meaningful discussion. This of course means they do what they want with no need to explain anything. Think I am kidding, watch any meeting and see for yourself. The whole saga of the yes winery ordinance is a sad one and someday people will understand what a travesty this whole thing has been from the beginning . But its just the tip of the iceberg for the township government processes.

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