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Famer sues Comstock Township over zoning dispute, citations

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(The Center Square) – A farmer who co-owns Soil Friends Hard Cider Co. is suing Comstock Township alleging constitutional and civil rights violations after local officials shut down a new barn “instrumental” to its business.

The local government shut down the 22-acre farm during peak season for selling Christmas trees, pumpkins, squash and hard cider “with no warning and no chance for correction,” co-owner Ben Martin told The Center Square in a phone interview.

The 12-count complaint filed in the United States Western District of Michigan against Comstock Township alleges First Amendment retaliation, violation of due process, regulatory takings, civil conspiracy, defamation, violation of Michigan’s Open Meetings Act, violations of due process, unconstitutional conditions, conspiracy to interfere with civil rights, tortious interference with a business relationship, intentional infliction of emotional distress under state law, state law preemption by Michigan Liquor Control code and state law preemption by Michigan Right to Farm Act.

The small family farm started in 2015 and was looking for new revenue streams before the business was shut down Nov. 19, 2022, after “the best momentum in all their years,” Martin said.

The permit drafted by Comstock Township Attorney Roxanne Seeber of BSTSK and adopted by Magistrate Judge Schaberg prohibited food, alcohol and music inside and outside the barn, food, the sale of crops grown on the property, the sale of Christmas trees, the sale of chicken eggs, farm tours, kids’ pictures with Santa Claus, hayrides, you-pick sales and numerous other common farm activities.

The government says Martin violated a permit use when he sold produce to customers because his property was permitted as agricultural, not commercial when he built a big red barn.

Martin said the Township “keeps moving goalposts” for building requirements, and now includes a new $200,000 sprinkler system.

“We have a brand-new building, but we can’t even use it,” Martin said. “The requirements are so stringent that they’re not feasible for a small family farm.”

Comstock Charter Township Communications Development Coordinator Matt Miller wrote in an email: “At this time, we have no comment regarding the Soil Friends Lawsuit.”

The lawsuit claims the government unlawfully forced the business to close from November 2022 through February 2023, costing $60,000 of product spoilage alone.

Soil Friends alleges that defendants conspired to shut down Soil Friends LLC.

The business claims defendants’ actions have resulted in sustained damages including loss of revenue from their business, loss of product, loss of business relationships and expectancies, and a loss of personal and business reputation within the community and across the state of Michigan.

Soil Friends says it hopes the lawsuit will bring an end to the overreach by Comstock Township and ensure that the rights of small farms are maintained in Michigan over the aggressive, unconstitutional, and unlawful conduct of local governments.

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