2017-09-21 / Front Page

No ‘protest,’ but order granted

By Eric Carlson
Of The Enterprise staff

A new legal battle is brewing between the owner of a controversial “wedding barn” in Elmwood Township, Frank Noverr, and a group known as the Southeast Leelanau Association of Neighbors (SLAN).

The group has been complaining for years about “special events” traffic on Lakeview Road, where many of them own homes on south Lake Leelanau, and amplified noise coming from Noverr’s 20-acre farm during wedding receptions and other mass gatherings.

A Lake Leelanau couple planning a wedding for their son on Noverr’s farm last weekend, Jim and Madeline Houdek, joined Noverr in filing a petition in 13th Circuit Court asking that a judge put a restraining order on SLAN members who, the petitioners claimed, had threatened to picket the wedding.

The restraining order was issued Friday, Sept. 15, by 13th Circuit Court Judge Kevin A. Elsenheimer — the day before the wedding which, by all accounts, went well.

“You know, somebody could simply have called. I would have told them that absolutely no picketing was planned – ever,” said Karen Ferguson, an attorney representing SLAN.

“Picketing is just not a tactic we have ever used or ever contemplated using,” Ferguson said. “We have always used the courts and the Elmwood Township zoning and planning process to deal with Mr. Noverr.”

“On the other hand, we’re now saying ‘thank you’ to Mr. Noverr and the Houdeks for bringing this whole set of issues to the court – because, now we can counter-sue them and perhaps, finally, put this whole thing to rest,” Ferguson said.

Last week, SLAN responded to Noverr’s and the Houdek’s request for a restraining order by filing a counterclaim against them, also naming Elmwood Township as a “cross thirdparty defendant.”

Noverr and the Elmwood Township government have been mired in legal and zoning and planning snafus since at least 2013 when neighbors started complaining that Noverr was operating a commercial wedding business on his property and creating a nuisance in their neighborhood.

Indeed, Noverr advertised the business online and indicated there was also a winery on his property although there was no license for a winery and no special land use permit to operate a special events venue. The township subsequently entered into a “settlement agreement” with Noverr in 2013 in which Noverr agreed to cease holding special events on his property on a “commercial” basis.

Since then, however, Noverr has continued to host weddings, receptions and other mass gatherings on his property that have continued bringing traffic and noise into his neighborhood, SLAN alleges. Noverr claimed none of the activities are taking place on a “commercial” basis. He has said that they are all being done for family members, close friends and business associates.

“Mr. Noverr has had hundreds of people working for him over the years, a very large group of friends and many family members,” explained Matthew Vermetten, Noverr’s attorney. “He has been complying fully with the 2013 agreement with the township.”

Noverr applied for the appropriate permits to conduct “winery related activities” such as weddings and other mass gatherings at his farm last year. His applications were denied, according to township officials, because of shortcomings in his paperwork.

Noverr took his case to the township Zoning Board of Appeals, but it upheld the township zoning administrator’s denial. Noverr then took his case to 13th Circuit Court — and prevailed even as the township was struggling to draft a new Zoning Ordinance.

Noverr also found himself in court after the county prosecutor charged him with obstructing police officers and emergency medical personnel who were responding to a 9-1-1 call from his property during a wedding reception last year. An individual in medical distress at the event ended up recovering fully, but Noverr initially faced felony charges for allegedly delaying emergency vehicles.

The felony charges were reduced to misdemeanors and were eventually dismissed entirely after several court hearings. Noverr’s attorney called the whole situation a “colossal misunderstanding.”

Meanwhile, Elmwood Township continued to struggle to update its Zoning Ordinance, a process that took well over a decade before a new Zoning Ordinance was adopted earlier this year. Even then, the new ordinance lacked provisions outlining rules for “winery-related activities,” and “special events,” in part because of the controversy surrounding the Noverr farm.

A committee of township officials was still working this week on new rules for wineries and “special events” that might apply to Noverr’s property and other agricultural parcels in Elmwood Township.

“This is really just about a group of people challenging their neighbor over his private property rights and what anybody ought to be able to do on their own property,” according to Noverr’s attorney, Vermetten.

SLAN attorney Ferguson said she expects to ask the court for an injunction against Noverr to prevent him from holding any more mass gatherings on his property until the issue is resolved in court.

Elmwood Township zoning administrator Sara Kopriva said earlier this week that the township had not yet been officially informed that it was named as a defendant in SLAN’s new case against Noverr. She declined comment until a township attorney could review the new court filings and provide guidance.

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