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Zoning dispute results in stop work order for Berlin farm owners

In August of last year a married couple received a building permit allowing them to replace the indoor riding arena on their 20-acrea farm after the previous winter's heavy snows caused it to collapse. They moved forward with the construction until they received a stop work order from the Berlin Township building inspector last November.

At issue in the dispute is whether the farm owners were within their rights regarding land use and zoning when they rebuilt their riding arena and began clearing trees and trucking in fill to make their land more suitable for growing hay and pasturing their horses.

The couple is claiming the city is trying to put them out of business. Because they have not yet received a certificate of occupancy they are unable to use their riding arena and have lost all their customers because of it. They still have a huge mortgage on the building that they have to pay, and without a source of income they are struggling to make ends meet. The couple believes they have acted legally because Berlin Township's bylaws provide greater leeway for farmers to work on their land without the need for approvals.

Zoning disputes can be complex when trying to interpret various laws and regulations and trying to balance the rights of the landowners with the rights of their neighbors. In this particular case there are township rules integrated within federal agricultural zone requirements and other land use definitions to comply with.

According to Berlin town officials there are no bylaws that prohibit the farm owners from trucking in tons of soil for their property. It's the trucking of that fill that brought their attention to the indoor riding arena. It qualifies as a riding stable which under agricultural zone rules requires the farm owners to submit plans to the town for approval.

The farm owners are reluctant to submit a site plan for review as it requires a public hearing in which neighbors could persuade town officials to require changes to the already built arena, which could add significant costs to their already tapped out resources.

So what exactly did the original building permit they received in August allow them to build, if not an indoor riding arena? This story goes to show how difficult it can be for property owners to handle zoning and land use disputes on their own. An experienced attorney knowledgeable in the various land use and zoning requirements, which vary greatly across municipalities, can be extremely helpful in ensuring your rights as a landowner are protected.

Source: Boston Globe, "Clash of rights," John Dyer, Mar. 11, 2012

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