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Published: Monday, 8/6/2007

Zoning rule to halt sprawl draws lawsuit in Hancock County

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

ARCADIA, Ohio Take a drive through the northeast corner of Hancock County and you ll have no doubt you re in farm country.

The roads in Washington Township are noticeably void of the new houses that dot other rural areas. For more than 20 years, the township has put the minimum lot size for a new house in an agricultural district at a staggering 35 acres.

They like Washington Township the way it is and they want to preserve it the way it is as long as they can, explained Gary Conine, chairman of the township trustees. We don t want houses on every corner.

Last year, Noble and Cathleen Hollis of Fremont filed a lawsuit against trustees after they were denied a variance by the township s board of zoning appeals to build a home on 17.82 acres. In the suit, they claimed the rule was unreasonable and unconstitutional.

And, in rural areas where 1 or 2 acres is the norm for building a house, the 35-acre rule does seem high.

Thirty-five acres! exclaimed Walt Wehenkel, the longtime planning director in Ottawa County. That s a mini-estate or a maxi-estate.

Washington Township officials have a different name for the 35-acre lots: farms.

It s an agricultural area, not a residential area, said K.C. Collette, an assistant Hancock County prosecutor who is representing the township in the lawsuit filed by the Hollises.

Mr. Collette said parts of the township are zoned residential and only require 2 acres for a new house, but the biggest chunk is zoned agricultural because trustees want to see it remain farm ground.

You don t need 35 acres to build a house in Washington Township, he said, but you do if you re going to build a house in an agricultural area.

The Hollises tried unsuccessfully to convince the board of zoning appeals that theirs was an exceptional situation because the parcel they had an option to purchase was not prime farm ground.

The land was mostly wooded and, more importantly, their lawsuit states, was landlocked by the Portage River to the west and north, Washington Township Road 216 to the south, and a golf course and houses to the east which when applied to the zoning resolution makes it impossible for the parcel to comply with the current zoning and thus constitutes a taking of the land that is unconstitutional.

After the zoning board denied their variance in a unanimous vote, they appealed the case in Hancock County Common Pleas Court. Testimony in the case was heard June 1, but Judge Joseph Niemeyer has not yet issued a ruling.

Neither the Hollises nor their attorney, Kurt Dauterman of Fostoria, returned phone calls seeking comment on the case.

Donna Laubenthal, who owns the land in question, said she and her husband had about 160 acres in Washington Township but sold the farmland to an investor who wasn t interested in the woods. While she was aware of the 35-acre rule, she assumed the board of zoning appeals would understand the remaining land was not prime farm ground and would be suited for a new home.

If the intent of that law was to preserve agricultural land and stop urban encroachment and all the problems [associated] with the loss of farm ground, then the wisdom of a zoning board is to decide when that does not apply, she said.

Mr. Collette said it would have set a dangerous precedent for the township to grant a variance to the Hollises because other landowners could then sell off their good farm ground and expect a variance for a building lot for the land that s left over.

While the land requirement seems unusually large, Mr. Collette said the rule helps deflect the kinds of conflicts that can arise when people move to the country and discover the sights and smells of the farming community.

You start mixing residences with agricultural farming where they re spreading fertilizer, where they have farm implements on the road and it creates conflicts. That s what they re trying to avoid by it, he said. Their feeling is 35 acres is probably the minimum size if you re a farmer to operate and do farming.

A check of zoning rules in townships in and around Lucas County shows that few, if any, have such a large minimum lot size, although Milan Township in western Monroe County, Michigan, requires 40 acres for new homes in agricultural districts.

In Fulton County, Planning Director Steve Brown said the county zoning code outlines large-lot zoning of 10 acres or more, although no townships have adopted it.

Some of the farming community has expressed that interest here, Mr. Brown said.

While Washington Township is the only township in Hancock County to require 35 acres for a new home, several neighboring townships prohibit construction of more than one house on 20 or 35 acres, although they do not require the person who wants to build the house to own that much land.

In Cass Township, which is situated to the west of Washington Township, only two acres are required for a new home, but a house may only be built if there are currently no houses within that quarter of a quarter section, which equates to 40 acres.

Bill Homka, director of the Hancock Regional Planning Commission in Findlay, said townships might have a number of reasons for imposing such zoning rules, including the ability to provide fire and emergency medical services.

There s more than just farmland preservation, it s a question of what can they adequately provide services for? he said.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:jfeehan@theblade.comor 419-353-5972.



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