Monica also said that because so many curious outsiders stop by at Cottonwood potlucks, it affords opportunities for sharing their faith and evangelization. Characterizing Cottonwood as a village, she said, “It’s part of a vocation. I’m raising the next generation of Catholics. I don’t think enough people appreciate what that is and how important it is.”
The contention between Cottonwood and township authorities started in September 2021, when the township issued a zoning violation notice about the animals. The farm has weathered a yearslong appeal process, with the appeal rejected in August 2022, and another violation that called on the farm to either expand from its current size or send the livestock away. The township claims that the right-of-way alongside the road bordering the farm diminishes the total acreage that can be claimed for farming.
“Trouble with the authorities started pretty early on,” Chenet told CNA, adding that it was not initially over animals. “This is why I’m sure the animals are a pretext.” He said there are other farms in the area that typically have single-family homes. Cottonwood’s pastures and fields were in disrepair when it was purchased, but residents have gradually improved it.
When asked whether the dispute had anything to do with the neighboring historic village, Chenet answered: “I think that had a big part in it. Webster Historical Society wanted to buy this property, but they didn’t have the funds. The other problem is that the town hall is right there — its property abuts ours — so people on the township board can see what we are doing, a lot.” An online search revealed that Zoning Board of Appeals member Rick Kleinschmidt is also a director of the Webster Historical Society.
In an Aug. 17 court filing for Cottonwood, Negri wrote that while a zoning administrator told Chenet in 2019 that the township board did not like the looks of Cottonwood’s dumpster, an official said it “did not violate any specific zoning ordinance,” but “if it wasn’t moved, he would find an applicable public nuisance ordinance to apply to it.” Township Treasurer John Scharf lives close to Cottonwood and in sight of the dumpster, according to Negri.
Other objections emerged about Cottonwood’s milk cow, Prudence, and whether she was getting adequate care. The Humane Society determined that the cow was treated appropriately, while Michigan’s Department of Agriculture found that the farm conformed with accepted agricultural and management practices and guidelines. However, a March citation from the township, later affirmed by the Zoning Board of Appeals, claimed that Cottonwood was violating a local ordinance prohibiting farm animals.
Cottonwood then filed a legal answer claiming that the zoning ordinance is ambiguously worded and that Michigan’s Right to Farm Act allowing agriculture supersedes the local ordinance.
Negri wrote: “It is patently frustrating that, in an age when farming practices have diminished and food prices are rising, and more and more people are turning to home farming options for sustenance, Webster Township feels compelled to cite its own residents in an AG-zoned district who are relearning farming techniques and seeking to be more eco-friendly, healthy, and self-sustaining by trying to shut down their small farming operation on specious grounds.”
In an interview, Negri told CNA: “This case has precedential effect for anyone who farms in Michigan under the Right to Farm Act if local jurisdictions can be the judge, jury, and executioner all the time. It’s a big problem.” He added that he expects the case will gain the attention of farmers and landowners across the state.
As for Chenet, he told CNA that he will pursue his legal options and warned that “If someone has a farm and a township doesn’t like it, then that farmer will face officials prosecuting him who are also the jury. It would be like putting a fox in charge of a henhouse.”