The Saga of Noverr Farms
Wedding venue drama and lawsuits in South Lake Leelanau
By Patrick Sullivan | Feb. 10, 2018
A nasty years-long battle between neighbors in the pastoral hills of South Lake Leelanau might be settled soon. But one of the parties, Frank Noverr, has no intention of settling down.
At the heart of the conflict is Noverr’s barn and 26-acre farm, a stunning lake-view parcel he opens to weddings and other private events — events his neighbors say are raucous nuisances to the neighborhood and have prompted police response on at least two occasions.
Elmwood Township refused in 2016 to grant Noverr a permit to hold commercial events at the property, and Noverr is appealing that decision in circuit court. Meanwhile, Noverr’s neighbors have brought a separate lawsuit against him in hopes of having his venue shuttered.
Meanwhile, as the township is inching closer to rewriting its events ordinance — a process both sides have attempted to influence and are watching closely — it looks like a legal resolution might end the battle between Noverr and his neighbors, but perhaps not their war.
“First of all, I am going to continue to do what I’m doing,” Noverr said. “There’s no judge that’s going to tell me I can’t have non-commercial events on my land for friends and family.”
FROM DISPUTE TO LAWSUIT
How did things get so bad between a successful Traverse City businessman known for his publishing and cellular companies and a group of well-off neighbors, many of whom live on the shore of Lake Leelanau?
“That’s the $64,000 question,” said Noverr’s attorney, Matthew Vermetten. “I don’t know. You know, the neighbors also sued the township. I think it’s been an arduous battle with that group. … Regrettably, it’s taken on a life of its own.”
Karen Ferguson, the attorney who represents South Lake Leelanau Association of Neighbors, or SLAN, said she believes relations got so bad because Noverr strenuously defends his property rights but has no respect for those of his neighbors.
“I think Mr. Noverr says, ‘I'm an NRA member, I believe in property rights, and I should be able to do whatever I want to do with my property,’” Ferguson said. “I think it got so bad because there’s no empathy, no concern. They think we’re just silly making complaints.”
For Ferguson, the dispute is about allowing intense commercial use of a 35mph road on what was, until Noverr, a quiet residential area. She believes that large wedding venues should be buffered from neighbors or relegated to land that’s zoned commercial.
In court, she’s filed affidavits from neighbors who describe loud pulsating music booming into their homes late at night and streams of bright headlights coming down the hill and beaming through windows.
Vermetten called the complaints overblown and exaggerated. Vermetten said the weddings that have taken place there in the last couple of years have been for friends and family. He said Noverr also has hosted the TART Trail annual meeting, a Northwestern Michigan College retreat, and an event for Munson Medical Center donors.
Vermetten said townships should allow farm owners to host events; he argues that the revenue stream helps support the farm-scape, preserving the character of the region.
“What it does is promote open space and agriculture,” Vermetten said. “It is promoting that, rather than the planting of houses on every square inch of the township. … You want to have vineyards, you want to have apple cider trees, you want to have cattle. You want to be able to keep these lands in agriculture, but also your let the landowner make a living.”
Disputes over agricultural event venues are not limited Elmwood Township. St. Ambrose Cellars was informed by Homestead Township in Benzie County that its event space was in violation of ordinance and ordered to cease all events in early February. The popular winery/meadery hired an attorney and is challenging the order.
I SUE, YOU SUE
There are two cases related to the dispute pending in the 13th Circuit Court. The first is an appeal Noverr filed in January 2017 after the township planning commission rejected a request for a special-use permit to hold events on his property.
Noverr had filed a request for a conditional land-use permit in September 2015. That request, which was based on the previous township master plan that allowed special events at wineries, got mired in debate. At issue: whether what Noverr owned constituted a winery. Of his 26 acres, only five were planted with grapes, but he sent those elsewhere to be turned into wine; he was having trouble obtaining a winery license from the Michigan Liquor Control Commission.
SLAN also raised objections about the effects of the events held on Noverr’s property. They complained about amplified music and vibrating bass, the impact of delivery vehicles and traffic, and lack of buffering.
“The record is clear that past events on site have had adverse impacts on neighbors, including noise, traffic congestion, and the shining of light into neighboring houses as vehicles leave the site at night,” Ferguson wrote in a court filing.
SLAN’s attempt to intervene in the appeal was rejected by Judge Larry Nelson; and Noverr’s appeal is on hold while the township rewrites its master plan.
Meanwhile, another other lawsuit is at work — this one stems from one Noverr and another party filed against SLAN last September. The purpose of that lawsuit was to get injunction against SLAN, preventing it from staging a protest in the public roadway during an upcoming wedding.
Ferguson said no one from SLAN was planning to protest the wedding, but nonetheless, that suit offered an opportunity to file a counter-lawsuit to seek an injunction against Noverr on the grounds that the events he holds on his property are nuisances.
While that Sept. 16 wedding went off without protest, she argued, neighbors repeatedly called police beginning at around 10pm that night because of the music, loud drunken laughter, and screeching that was coming from Noverr’s barn.
Vermetten filed a motion to have the countersuit dismissed on the grounds that the event was a private party, not a commercial event.
He wrote that the complaints from the neighbors amount to “a few key gripes” that don’t rise to the level of nuisance.
“In the tradition of ‘good fences make good neighbors,’ curtains, white noise machines, perhaps an extra glass of wine, are the appropriate and best prescription,” Vermetten wrote in his response.
A hearing on the motion to dismiss is scheduled for March 9. If that motion fails, a three-day bench trial on the question of whether Noverr’s barn is a nuisance is scheduled to begin April 25.
SACRED VOWS AND 911 CALLS
Noverr believes that no matter the outcome of the lawsuits, he will be able to go on hosting the kind of events he’s been hosting for the last couple of years.
Ferguson disagrees. She said the scale of Noverrs events, which typically involve caterers, port-a-potty deliveries, and significantly increased traffic, are on a scale larger than what you’d expect of a private event. She said it is irrelevant whether someone pays Noverr to hold an event on his property or not.
“In our opinion, no, it doesn’t matter,” Ferguson said. “It will not matter [under the new zoning code] whether or not he’s paid for them — they will be special events because they are special events.”
It’s exactly these “non-commercial events” that have been the sources of the neighbors’ ire for years.
In one highly publicized case in August 2016, someone at a wedding on Noverr’s property called 911 for help after a guest suffered an overdose of either drugs or alcohol.
When a sheriff’s deputy arrived to respond to the call, Noverr blocked his driveway with his Jeep, preventing the deputy from responding, according to a police report.
“Noverr stated that I needed to shut off my emergency lights and turn my vehicle around and that I was on his property,” the deputy wrote. The deputy asked Noverr to verify his address and informed him that he, the deputy, was responding to an emergency call that someone on the property needed help. An ambulance pulled up behind the deputy.
“Noverr said he’d just come from his residence, and it was just his wife there, and no one needed assistance,” the deputy wrote.
The deputy eventually warned Noverr that he would be responsible if “something were to happen,” according to the police report.
As the deputy started to leave, someone in a golf cart approached, got out, pointed up the hill, and said someone there needed help.
“There was, in fact, a large wedding party taking place and hundreds of people in the barn,” the deputy wrote.
Noverr let the responders through. But when they finally reached the 30-year-old guest, she was, as described in the police report, limp and drooling, with her eyes rolled back into her head. The woman was taken to Munson and survived.
CHARGES LAID; CHARGES DISMISSED
Noverr said his exchange with the deputy was mischaracterized in the police report. He said he did not pretend that there was no wedding taking place on his property. Indeed, Noverr said, he had informed the sheriff’s department the day before that a wedding was going to take place.
“Once I started having issues with the neighbors calling the police all the time, I started calling the sheriff every time [to notify them before holding an event], Noverr said.
Noverr said there was confusion at first because no one knew the location of the ailing person.
Leelanau County prosecutors initially charged Noverr with felony resisting and obstructing police — charges that were later dismissed and replaced with misdemeanor charges. The misdemeanor case was also soon dismissed. At the time, Prosecutor Joseph Hubbell released a statement saying he’d dismissed the charge amid an agreement with Noverr that all future responders could access the driveway.
Vermetten said the charges were dismissed because they were baseless.
“There was no misunderstanding,” Ferguson said. “He used his Jeep to block the access. If that person had died, he would have been in big trouble.”
Ferguson said she suspects Noverr skated free of the criminal cases because of his prominence in the community.
“I think it’s because he’s a big name in the township,” she said.
The incident became part of SLAN’s argument against Noverr getting a special land-use permit, in part because it showed that the narrow driveway that accesses the property can easily impede an emergency responder from reaching the barns. The group cited the township fire chief, who said he was concerned about access to the property.
Noverr said he is willing to make improvements if the’re necessary.
“We’ve offered to put in five turnoffs coming up the driveway, and there’s places that you can pull over in the grass if there’s an emergency vehicle coming up the hill,” he said.
“I WON’T BACK DOWN”
The overdose incident was not the first time deputies have investigated allegations against Noverr.
Charlie Kaufman is one of SLAN’s most vocal neighbors. His house sits across the road from Noverr’s driveway.
For several years, neighbors have alleged that Noverr repeatedly took out his boat late at night and, from its loudspeakers, blasted Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” at their homes.
At the Jan. 8 Elmwood Township board of trustees meeting, Kaufman said he knew of at least 18 times when he or other neighbors witnessed someone in a boat after dark blaring loud music in their direction.
Finally, Kaufman told the trustees, someone ID’d Noverr in the boat, and they went to the sheriff’s department to make a complaint. They were told there was nothing the police could do because the township doesn’t have a sound ordinance.
A deputy took a report from another neighbor in July 2016 who shone a spotlight onto a boat as it blasted music and tracked it back to Noverr’s dock. By the time the deputy arrived, whoever was in the boat was long gone.
The deputy told the complainant it would be futile for him to question Noverr, according to a police report.
“I told [the woman] that I know Mr. Noverr, and if I go and confront him, he’s going to only deny the allegations,” the deputy wrote.
In an interview with the Express, Noverr denied ever taking out his boat to blast music and harass neighbors.
“I think it’s made up out of thin air, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the issue at hand,” Noverr said.
When he was interviewed about the allegations by the Leelanau Enterprise in 2015, Noverr told the paper that he would neither confirm nor deny that he was responsible.
“I do like music. I do like Tom Petty. And I definitely won’t back down,” Noverr told the newspaper.
Ferguson said the musical harassment, usually between 11pm and 2am in the summer, demonstrates the kind of person her clients have had to deal with with.
“He goes along the shoreline, and he blasts music,” Ferguson said. “He continues to do that. It’s very juvenile.”
A NEW MASTER PLAN
Meanwhile, trustees have been busy trying to figure out how to regulate events in the township.
They spent hours discussing how to word the special events ordinance at that Jan. 8 meeting. The trustees grappled with questions like how to determine the threshold when noise becomes a problem and how to weigh the property rights of one resident against the property rights of their neighbors.
Township Supervisor Jeff Shaw said officials took pains to set aside the Noverr-SLAN dispute while they considered language for the ordinance.
“It has been the goal from the beginning to keep the Noverr situation and any other specific incidences out of the process,” Shaw said.
Shaw said the intent of the special events policy is to preserve open space by giving owners of farmland other opportunities to make money.
“We all know they could sell their property to developers and make a lot of money up front,” Shaw said. “I think it's important that we don't let a specific situation dictate a zoning ordinance that affects all of the residents.”
Ferguson said she thinks Noverr’s plans are at odds with the kind of agricultural preservation that the zoning change seeks to encourage.
“Once you start covering your agricultural land with parking for commercial events, how much actual farming are you going to be doing?” she said. “It just seems like the wrong way to go.”
Noverr vows that his farm will one day either become a licensed event center or a winery with a tasting room that hosts “winery-related activities.”
Vermetten said he hopes to get a fair hearing. He said officials were biased against Noverr’s plans in his first permit application.
Once the new language is adopted, Noverr and Vermetten plan to make an application for a permit to host commercial events.
Ferguson plans to respond.
“We are going to present very similar information, and the standards are going to be pretty similar,” Ferguson said. “Once they adopt an amendment, and then Noverr makes an application, then we present our case to the planning commission.”