Five Catholic families seeking to live out their Catholic faith together in rural Michigan received news this past week that could jeopardize their future at the historic farm where they live.

Judge Anna Frushour of the 14th Washtenaw County District Court ruled on Sept. 17 that Cottonwood Farm does not meet the local five-acre threshold to be considered a farm, allowing livestock. The judge said that her court cannot circumvent the zoning board’s decision.

Inshal Chenet of Cottonwood Farm attended the hearing to address what his attorney, Jason Negri, has characterized as “persecution” on the part of local township authorities. In interviews with CNA, Chenet and Negri said the judge’s ruling may have implications not only for the Cottonwood Farm faith community but also for all farmers in Michigan.

“It’s disappointing to see that a judge sees that a local township board of appeals has jurisdiction over whether a farm is actually farming under the Michigan Right to Farm Act. What happened is precisely the sort of outcome that the state Legislature did not intend to have to give that level of jurisdiction to a local governing body over ordinances,” Negri said.

Further aspects of the case will come up for another hearing in November.

Cottonwood Farm is 10 miles from Ann Arbor and has five historic structures. The main house dates to before 1833, when the surrounding Webster Township was incorporated by settlers from New York nearly 200 years ago. Next door is the Webster Historical Society property, which maintains historic buildings dating to more than a century ago.

Chenet, 29, a Catholic father and educator, joined several Catholic friends to form Morning Star LLC in 2019 to purchase Cottonwood Farm, where his family now shares the property with members and renters who share a vision of close cooperation, Catholic faith, and friendship.

Families have their own homes and there is a separate house for unmarried women and another for unmarried men. All of the residents, according to a court filing, qualify as low-income. Several of the men are engaged in construction. The community raises livestock and tends gardens. Members hold down jobs but share aspects of their lives with one another to emulate the earliest Christian communities. Curious outsiders, not all of whom are Catholic or Christian, frequently stop by Cottonwood’s gatherings, such as lectures, potlucks, and game nights.

The approximately 20 residents of Cottonwood, including children, are Catholics who attend various parish churches in the area.

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During a morning visit, young giggling children run through the grass, swing from a rope hanging from a tree, and feed sheep. “This is the natural type of thing you don’t see if you live like most others,” Chenet told CNA. There are regular, unplanned social events where kids and parents gather. “If you go back throughout the vast majority of human history, this is what’s natural. This is what just happens,” he said.

Chenet and his wife, Monica, who have four young children, met at Wyoming Catholic College, where other Cottonwood residents also graduated. Parents at Cottonwood share in home schooling, which offers them opportunities for prayer and socializing that they wouldn’t have otherwise.

“That kind of organic community is what’s lacking for many people,” Chenet said, adding that he and his friends wanted a place where Catholics could live in close proximity. 

Monica Chenet said most of her best friends live in Cottonwood. “And I have plenty of friends off Cottonwood, but it’s really amazing to have people I can go to and pour out my heart and tell my troubles and receive their troubles in return … But this is an experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything else.”

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.

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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.”