2018-07-05 / Front Page

Noverr wins case even as ‘events’ violate ordinance

Venue in ag district
By Eric Carlson
Of The Enterprise staff

A lawsuit against the owner of Noverr Farm in Elmwood Township has been dismissed, but neighbors are still concerned that “special events” such as wedding receptions conducted at the property will continue to cause problems.

A judge last week issued an order granting property owner Frank Noverr’s motion to dismiss a complaint against him filed by the Southeast Leelanau Association of Neighbors (SLAN), opining that members of the group failed to show how they were suffering “significant harm” from activities on Noverr’s property.

However, the judge also found “that Noverr’s past and present use” of his property as a special events venue is in violation of the Elmwood Township Zoning Ordinance.

For several years now residential property owners mostly in the northwest corner of Elmwood Township near south Lake Leelanau have complained that mass gatherings on Noverr’s nearby 20-acre agricultural property have resulted in excess noise and vehicular traffic.

Their complaints to township officials years ago resulted in a “settlement agreement” between the township and Noverr, who agreed not to hold special events on a “commercial” basis on his property until he obtained appropriate permits.

Neighbors noted that events were continuing, although Noverr has consistently asserted they were not “commercial.”

A long-running effort to re-write the township Zoning Ordinance was completed in 2017, but the new ordinance lacked language outlining requirements for permitting special events or “conference center/banquet facilities” on agricultural properties. The delay in adopting relevant zoning rules stemmed mostly from continuing controversy including a complex series of legal actions involving the Noverr property, the township, and Noverr’s neighbors.

The Township Board in May adopted new language that might allow Noverr to operate a special events venue on a commercial basis on his property with significant restrictions, but no permit has yet been issued.

“It is encouraging that the judge found that Mr. Noverr is in violation of the zoning ordinance, and SLAN is hopeful that the township will now enforce the ordinance to protect the neighborhood,” said SLAN attorney Kristyn Houle in a prepared statement. “SLAN is otherwise exploring all options going forward and has not made a decision on whether or not to appeal…”

Noverr’s attorney, Matt Vermetten, expressed satisfaction that the judge dismissed the case by “recognizing the baseless nature of SLAN’s lawsuit…”

Also in a prepared statement, Vermetten wrote: “The lawsuit was a colossal waste of time, resources and treasure that racked up six figure legal fees for the parties. … We will continue to be good neighbors and welcome the township’s input to help strike a balance that fairly and equitably enforces the applicable laws and ordinances, preserving all private property rights in the community.”

Township zoning administrator Sara Kopriva said she and other township officials had not yet had time to review the judge’s opinion, which was rendered on June 29. The township had originally been named as a defendant in the case but was subsequently dismissed as part of the complex and protracted legal proceedings.

Township officials acknowledged, however, that issues between Noverr, his neighbors and the township remain unresolved because Noverr still lacks a permit to conduct special events on his property, and a judge has found that Noverr has, in fact, been violating the township’s zoning ordinance.

The order was issued by Judge David A. Thompson, chief judge of 19th Circuit Court in Benzie County. The case was filed in 13th Circuit Court in Leelanau County, but local court officials recused themselves from the case because some had previously had legal and business relationships with Noverr.

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