(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. Read on for Township Board member Rudy Rudolph’s thoughts on the ordinance. -jb)
On December 13th, your Town Board passed a significant, but controversial, change to the ordinances affecting farm processing activities in Peninsula Township. It is important that you understand that my obligation to you in this action was not taken lightly. I have, to the best of my ability, acted to legally represent the rights of all of the citizens of the Township. You may not agree with my action with regard to these ordinances based on your feelings, but I would hope that each of you, faced with the same set of facts and obligations, would have acted with the same care and humility.
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First of all, there has been a lot of noise about the Michigan “Right to Farm Act” (RTFA), with the implication that passing these ordinances somehow will conflict with that act. The Citizens Committee charged with looking at these ordinances, the Town Board, and the Township Planner have all carefully studied the RTFA, seeking understanding and advice from experts at the state oversight level. The RTFA was adopted to protect agricultural operators from nuisance lawsuits that would unduly limit a farmer’s ability to legitimately operate his enterprise – that is, the raising and selling of farm commodities. So long as a farm operator follows “Generally Accepted Agricultural Management Practices” (GAAMPs), he is protected.
The RTFA and GAAMPs specifically do not address the right to process raw product. As it has been explained to me, by RTFA experts, the RTFA recognizes that processing (that is, “changing the form” of the raw product into something else, i.e. milk into cheese, apples into apple butter or grapes into wine, on a commercial/industrial scale) is an industrial activity that does not fall under the protection of the RTFA, but rather is subject to regulation by the local community.
You might say that Cottage Industry (CI) is a legitimate farm operation that allows processing of raw product into a different commodity for sale, and if you did you would, as I understand it, be correct. However, if you carefully research CI, you will find it is very restrictive in its scope. For example, you cannot change your produce into something that easily spoils and sell it in your farm stand or farm market. And, it is my understanding, the total revenue from CI activities cannot exceed $25,000 per year per USDA guidelines. If you exceed those limits you become a commercial kitchen or industrial processor.
There are other requirements as well, but the point is, CI is certainly not something that would be restricted by the ordinances just passed by the Town Board last week. I have friends and neighbors who have small acreages of flowers, fruit, vegetables, or grapes; who sell the raw products to consumers, wholesalers or processors; and in some cases, who sell pies, muffins, jellies or other non-perishable items made from their produce. Nothing in these ordinances would prohibit those activities in any way, and I would fight fiercely for their rights to continue these operations.
Secondly, it is important for everyone to understand that the Township did not initiate these ordinance changes on a whim. Decades ago, the Township passed a set of ordinances that specifically allowed wineries to operate in the Township as primarily agricultural enterprises with very limited industrial processing and commercial tourism rights and obligations under their “Special Use Permits” (SUP). From time to time, as I understand it, amendments were made to those ordinances through vetted, public discussions to accommodate either the needs of the wineries or the public interest.
Recently however, regular public process has been circumvented by a lawsuit brought by certain wineries against the Township in a federal, not state, court. That lawsuit seeks to greatly expand the industrial and commercial activities allowed to wineries on agriculturally zoned property within the Township. These actions have put the existing winery and farm processing ordinances into such a state of confusion that it is not clear, to me as one who is charged with the responsibility, how they can be simply modified to satisfy the court. It seemed to me that it would be best to start anew with the advice and review of our very professional Township Planner, Jenn Cram, and the Township attorney. Thanks to their hard work, I believe we have a very good new set of ordinances on which to base the future.
Additionally, the general public has consistently voiced opposition to expanding the industrial and commercial nature of operations on agriculturally zoned property. Based on a review of Master Plan polling, the consistent voting results related to PDR, and the vocal and written responses made as a result of the public hearings on the winery lawsuit, my conclusion is that 60 to 70 percent of the population in the Township clearly wants constraints on industrial, commercial activities. It is my obligation as a Trustee to take these concerns seriously.
To top it off, once it became clear what the wineries were intending, based on the demands of their lawsuit, other farmers in the Township realized that the wineries, as a result of the ordinances in place, had become a privileged class with rights not available to farm operators as a whole. These farm operators have legitimately demanded that all farming operations be treated the same. I understand this and will do everything I can, legally and consistent with my obligation to my constituents, to meet this legitimate demand.
It is my feeling that the ordinances just passed address the concerns of all farm operators with regard to industrial scale processing of farm products. And, that is all they do, in my estimation. As I see it, these ordinances do not restrict normal farm operations, and they do not tell farmers how they can operate their farms. All they do is put some limited, legitimate restrictions on industrial scale processing of farm products.
It has been publicly stated that the action by the Township Trustees on these ordinances are intended to somehow cause retribution to wineries as a result of their lawsuit. It is recognized that the uncertainties brought about by the lawsuit has caused the Township to put its farm processing ordinances under close scrutiny. I can truly state there is no animus on my part towards any winery. My feeling is, wineries continue to be a valuable, economically viable, agricultural enterprise in the Township. Anyone will still be able to apply for an SUP to open a new winery under these ordinances. However, I do feel the wineries need to be treated consistently with other farm operations in the Township, and that the people of the Township do have a legitimate right to restrict the commercial and industrial scale of operations on agriculturally zoned property. I feel this is what these ordinances seek to do.
Finally, there seems to be some misunderstanding within the public at large about the legal responsibilities of your Township Trustees. We are all sworn to the best of our abilities to uphold the Constitution of the United States, the Constitution of the State of Michigan, and the Ordinances of Peninsula Township. We are also obligated to act as a Board in full view of the public on issues that are not protected by attorney-client privilege or that may infringe on individual rights of an employee. It is also the responsibility of your Trustees to act, legally, in what they perceive to be the best interests of the people of the Township, as a whole, not giving preference to any one individual or class of individuals.
As you may have noticed regarding recent activities at the U.S. Supreme Court, legality can be subject to interpretation. I, for one, do not pretend to fully understand all the nuances of the law. To help us uphold our legal obligations to you, the Township has retained a very good attorney. It is understood that some in the community do not always agree with our Township attorney’s advice, but I would not be doing my duty to you as my constituents if I did not follow it.
Thank you for your attention. It is my honor to serve as an appointed Trustee of Peninsula Township, and I hope that you, at the least, understand that as a Trustee, I will always do my best to act in the interests of the people of Peninsula Township, as a whole. Your inputs are always welcome and important to this process, and though you may not always think so, your inputs are taken seriously.
-Rudy Rudolph, Peninsula Township Trustee