Commissioners Want More Time In Blue Barn Berry Farm Dispute

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County commissioners tabled a rezoning request Tuesday and told the disputing neighbors to try to work it out.

This unanimous decision came after hearing arguments – at times heated – from attorneys representing the petitioner, Blue Barn Berry Farm, and the neighboring homeowners who want to stop the rezoning.

BBBF began operating at 9139 N. CR 300E, Syracuse, six years ago as a U-Pick blueberry farm and is owned and operated by Peggy Bucher and Shanda Scheeren. The u-pick farm has gradually added a country market, pavilions and now has an event center capable of hosting 200-person weddings. It also sits on the shores of Lake Jacob.

The neighbors who bought homes along the ski lake have been bothered by the expansion of Blue Barn and are against Blue Barn’s request to rezone the area from residential to agricultural, which would essentially allow BBBF to take exception requests to the Board of Zoning Appeals, potentially allowing them to continue operating or continue to expand.

The attorney for BBBF Jack Birch successfully convinced the Kosciusko County Area Plan Commission at its Sept. 4 meeting to unanimously recommend to commissioners to approve the 8.16 acres be rezoned to agricultural.

Commissioner Brad Jackson said after arguments Tuesday he wants to allow the neighbors to try to work it out between themselves before county government has to make a decision and “somebody’s going to be really upset.”

As it stands, BBBF is in violation of the law. Area Plan Commission Director Dan Richard said they’re trying to get that cleared up to be able to ask for a proper exception from the BZA, but that they won’t be allowed to do weddings unless and until the BZA approves it.

“My clients were never represented until now,” Birch told commissioners. “They did not realize what they petitioned for is not legally what they were trying to do.”

Birch said they can’t even get to the BZA because they’re not properly zoned, so talking about possible exception requests to commissioners is putting the cart before the horse.

“We’re not asking for commercial, and it would be highly controlled by the BZA,” Birch said. “We’re trying to straighten this out.”

Birch also said neither his clients nor the homeowners disputing the rezoning want to see 30 homes built in the residential zone, and BBBF uses 60% of the land for agricultural use.

Attorney for the neighbors Scott Federoff, of Snyder, Morgan, Federoff & Kuchmay LLP in Syracuse, said flat out “this is a banquet hall.”

Federoff told commissioners they know what goes on at weddings: alcohol, a band or a DJ, and that’s fine, but “when you live across the lake from a banquet hall, certain implications come into play.

“Zoning is what goes in a certain spot,” Federoff said. “These folks bought their houses based on the fact it’s residential. At night, when it’s quiet on a lake, you can hear a conversation. Verbatim. Again, great to have a party, not great to live next to it.”

Federoff said BBBF owners may have the greatest intentions in the world, but they’re operating illegally, asking if it’s a “do what you want and come in and ask for forgiveness later situation.”

“You break the law, you break the law,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you knew what the law was.”

Federoff then told commissioners he’s not making threats, but if they vote yes they can expect a lengthy process of appeals and his clients are prepared to take it to the courts.

“That’s step one. Then next we go to the BZA and depending on that, we appeal it,” Federoff said. “So your decision will have a bearing on how much this lasts, how long we go and how much this will cost Kosciusko County.”

Birch took the podium and said, “I’ve never had an attorney make a threat that is in essence a shakedown. It is approved by the BZA as a berry farm.”

“Do the homeowners want 20 more houses? The Bucher family doesn’t want that,” Birch said. “If we’re talking about threats, that’s it.”

Federoff told commissioners he did not make a threat, he was simply explaining what the process will be if they have to go down that road.

Commissioner President Cary Groninger said the struggle for him is the homeowners bought those houses because they’re in a residential area.

“It seems like kind of a runaround to do what they want to do to stay in compliance,” Groninger said of the agriculture zoning. “So, I’m not sure.”

Jackson then said he’s going to take his commissioner hat off for a minute.

“You guys have been friends and neighbors for a long time,” Jackson said. “Is there any way you guys can talk and find some solution before the government tells you what to do?”

Commissioner Bob Conley said they’ve already been given the opportunity to do that and it hasn’t worked.

Jackson made the motion to table it until the Oct. 15 meeting.

“Let’s give them a chance to work it out,” he said.

Also Tuesday, the board:

• Heard from Kosciusko Circuit Court Judge Michael Reed that he’d like the commissioners to recommend Alan Alderfer for their public defender board appointment. Commissioners agreed. Reed also asked for permission to apply for the Justice Partners Addictions Response Grant. If awarded the $60,000 grant, two additional JCAP classes in the jail will be added and two new counselors will be hired.

“There is no match, no strings attached,” Reed said. “If we don’t get it, we won’t spend it.”

Commissioners told Reed he can apply.

• Approved an emergency funding request from County Administrator Marsha McSherry for $51,963 to replace the compressor for the HVAC system at the Justice Building. Groninger said currently there is no A/C in the Justice Building. McSherry said there is, but it’s not working in its full capacity.

• Approved County Highway Superintendent Scott Tilden’s request to install a stop sign at the southwest corner of Elwood Street that would stop traffic on Elwood, and put a yield sign for Grandview Drive traffic.

The next commissioners meeting is 9 a.m. Oct. 1 in the old courthouse.