BAINBRIDGE TOWNSHIP, Ohio (WJW) — The owner of a small farm and educational co-op in Geauga County is in the middle of a long, drawn-out legal battle with Bainbridge Township Trustees.
Kelly’s Working Well Farm sits on a six-acre parcel of land outside Chagrin Falls and is the home of the Chagrin Valley Learning Collective, a program that offers home-schooled children an opportunity to learn about nature and agriculture.
Owner Kelly Clark told Fox 8, “People don’t really know a lot about what we used to consider basic knowledge about animals and food, and these days, I think a lot of people just don’t learn that because they just get all their food from the store.”
In 2019, the farm and educational co-op drew the attention of authorities in Bainbridge Township. During an inspection of various buildings on the property, Clark was cited for fire code violations.
Six weeks later, the township shut down the farm and educational program.
“I was shocked because initially, they said ‘Well, we’ll work with you and we think this program is great,’ and then all of a sudden it was like ‘Whoa, I thought we were in conversation about this,’” Clark said.
After several attempts at a resolution of the dispute with the township, Clark decided to take legal action to re-open the farm and learning collective and to begin operating a summer camp as well.
Earlier this year, a Geauga County judge partially ruled in Clark’s favor, finding that the non-profit farm and homeschooling program are classified as agritourism, and therefore not subject to the same zoning regulations as typical businesses in the township.
Clark said, “It was a relief, but I wasn’t surprised because I think there’s very little room in the agritourism law to rule otherwise.”
Clark said she has attempted to correct the code violations cited in the original fire inspection, but she said the township has refused to return to the farm and do a follow-up inspection.
Township trustees are now appealing the ruling that allows the farm to continue to operate.
Trustees maintain that the enforcement of various codes is in the interest of protecting children and other visitors to the farm.
The township issued a statement that reads in part, “All fire code regulations are based on the potential for serious risk of harm to people, including injuries and death from fire hazards. All the structures at Kelly’s Working Well Farm were constructed without approval or permits from public entities.”
Clark said she will not allow her battle with township hall to interfere with her educational mission, but admits she is frustrated by the fight that has lasted four years.
“It just seems like they just don’t want us to able to operate, that’s all I can conclude,” Clark said.
The next round in the fight will be fought in the court of appeals.
The entire statement issued by Bainbridge Township Trustees says, “Several weeks ago, we authorized an appeal of the decision in civil contempt proceedings in this case brought by the Township against the property owners of Kelly’s Working Well Farm and a Learning Co-Op, operating at the site. The trial court determined that the property owners and Learning Co-Op. did not comply with a consent agreement with the Township because they had violated 10-foot distance restrictions with respect to the structures containing fire hazards on the property. The decision, however, also determined that the summer camps and Learning Co-op, with students from ages five through 18, were allowed to operate as agritourism at this small Bainbridge farm. The Township appealed this part of the decision to the Court of Appeals. Prior to this litigation in 2020, the Bainbridge Township Board of Zoning Appeals determined that the property owners of Kelly’s Working Well Farm would have to obtain a use variance in order to operate a school and camp at the site. The Board also determined that the school and associated camps operating at the site were not agritourism events. The Township and Fire Department have tried to work with the property owners and agreed to enter into a consent agreement in 2022, in the injunction case, to allow the property owners some use of their property. Considering the fire hazards in the buildings on the site, the agreement only allows agriculture use and agritourism events. These events can only be held on the grounds of the property, with strict compliance of the distance restrictions to structures at the site to ensure safety for all visitors. As Trustees, we take enforcement of our Zoning Resolution and the Ohio Fire Code very seriously. The Bainbridge Township’s Zoning Resolution was enacted, in large part, in the interest of promoting public health, safety, and welfare within our community. As well, all fire code regulations are based on the potential for serious risk of harm to people, including injuries and death from fire hazards. All the structures at Kelly’s Working Well Farm were constructed without approvals or permits from public entities, including the County Building Department, and the Bainbridge Fire and Zoning Departments, which resulted in the 2019 fire citation against the property owners. The State Legislature, back in 2016, enacted provisions for agritourism, under R.C. 901.80, in order to provide some immunity from civil liability and limitations on local zoning enforcement for farms hosting these events. Under this statute and the 2020 Board of Zoning Appeals decision, agritourism activities must be limited in duration or timespan and must also be open to or invite the general public to participate in the activity. We have, ourselves, enjoyed participating and engaging with the community at local agritourism events on farms, which would include, for example, you-pick operations. We also appreciate and understand the benefits of having these activities in our Township and County. General property uses and businesses, however, such as the Chagrin Valley Learning Collective, and Co-op., are not activities open to the general public. The Learning Co-Op and camps are limited to children of certain ages and operate for an indefinite period of time on the property. The Learning Co-Op also functions as primary schooling for the student participants, who do not attend public school. Consequently, these types of businesses should follow the Bainbridge Township Zoning Resolution. The use is also restricted by a prior decision of the Bainbridge Township Board of Zoning Appeals and is operating in violation of the current Consent Agreement between the parties.”