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Zoning Confusion Puts Animals on Van Buren County Farm In Jeopardy

Posted at 8:33 PM, Aug 01, 2013
and last updated 2013-08-02 06:34:38-04

VAN BUREN COUNTY, Mich. — Eight-year-old Jackson Hunter is proud of his friendly donkeys Ruthie and Nellie and his prize-winning 4-H chickens, especially the one he named “Cotton.”

The family, Kelly Vander Kley-Hunter and David Hunter, and their two young sons, moved to their home in rural Antwerp Township near Mattawan about three years ago. They put a lot of love and effort into the property, fixing up the old farmhouse that was nearly foreclosed on and had been vacant for three or four years.

The Hunters say the house was built by “pit farmers” who grew peaches and other fruit in the late 30s.

Kelly said it was her dream to teach her children about hard work and the positive aspects of farm life.  Jackson just finished his first year in the local 4-H program.

Neighbors were pleased someone had purchased the property that had become neglected and overgrown with brush before the family moved in.

“They really cleaned up the house since they purchased it,” said Judy Kozminske, a neighbor.

A private firm located in the city of Grand Rapids, LSL Planning, contracts out with Antwerp Township to handle zoning issues.  A representative came out to inspect the farm in May and sent the family a letter, essentially saying everything was fine.  They did request the family put up an additional fence, which they did.

Then, a letter from the same company blindsided the Hunters in late July. It said they had 90 days to get rid of some of their animals. Kelly said she was devastated and in tears.

“At first, the township offices would not answer our questions directly about why the zoning decision had suddenly changed. They told us we needed to talk to LSL Planning in Grand Rapids, specifically Paul LeBlanc.”

However, Paul LeBlanc did not want to comment in detail about the case.

“I really don’t want it to become an issue,” he said. “I talked to the property owner a couple of times this week. Things are moving fine, and I just don’t want to make it an issue if it doesn’t exist.”

“There seemed to be a misunderstanding about the animals that they were keeping and the ordinance permit,” he added.

LeBlanc referred us back to Township Supervisor Dan Ruzick, who refused a request to have a conversation but said he may do so at a later date.  He did issue a written statement.

When asked why he, an elected official, didn’t want to address the issues on zoning face-to-face, he said, “There is a process that we’re going to address. It’s at planning commission on a Wednesday, that we’re going to look at these amendments and the zoning so we’re addressing those things.  So, to sensationalize the story is something we don’t need to do.”

FOX 17 argued that it wasn’t sensationalizing to ask zoning questions of elected officials and pointed out that other residents may have concerns that the township officials might blindside them with sudden changes in their zoning decisions as well.

“I think I was very clear to you that there had been some changes on the Hunter farm,” said Ruzick. “There also was some mistakes made by the zoning administrator who is now not with the firm.”

We were told that the zoning administrator who told the Hunter family that they were in compliance was now working in St. Louis.  Ruzick said that he was not fired.

As for those changes Ruzick spoke of that the family allegedly made between the first letter and the last, the family said the only thing they changed was that they put a new fence up as requested by LSL.

The Hunter family says that LSL Planning and the township have been working with them in a friendly manner and they appreciate it.  However, they say the situation is simply confusing.  They say it’s also difficult trying to get questions answered, when working with both a private contractor and the township and that they are often bounced around between the two without getting answers.

Kelly says all the family wants to do is move forward. Meanwhile, supporters are rushing to the side of the family to pay for any legal issues associated with the zoning decisions.

They have a fundraising effort online called “Save The Hunter Family Farm.”