Agribusiness proposal set for hearing


GREENFIELD — In an ongoing conflict between farmers trying to expand their businesses and neighbors across the fence who want to keep the peace and quiet, the county’s agribusiness ordinance is getting another look.

On Tuesday, the Hancock County Area Plan Commission will hold a public hearing on proposed changes to the county’s 3-year-old ordinance.

The proposed changes include strikeouts to entire sections of the ordinance, giving more flexibility to farmers to host events related to agriculture on their property. At the same time, the draft adds buffer standards for agritourism activities near neighboring residential structures.

The proposed changes allow for a variety of events, including historical re-enactments, rodeos, turkey shoots, musical events and tractor pulls, generally with no permit from the planning department or notice to neighbors required.

They limit hours of operation to 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. for activities involving patrons, but farmers can get special approval to host events later, Dale said.

Before May 2012, the county had no rules for agribusiness, said Mike Dale, county planning director. County officials chose to create an ordinance after hearing complaints from neighbors living close to agribusiness operations.

The proposal adopted that year was intended to “promote agribusiness in Hancock County while preserving the quality and character of the county’s neighboring land uses,” the ordinance reads.

Instead of curbing conflict, though, the ordinance inspired more. Farmers felt the ordinance was too strict, while neighboring residents said it was too vague, Dale said.

“No one is happy,” Dale said.

About a year ago, the county commissioners asked Dale to take another look at it, and the plan commission instructed him to meet with agriculture stakeholders to draft changes to the ordinance.

The debate about agribusiness centers on Piney Acres Farm in northwest Hancock County east of Fortville and its neighbors.

It’s one of few agribusiness operations in the county. The farm is best known for its crop of Christmas trees, but owners also host attractions throughout the year. Farm owner Rex Zenor, who could not be reached for comment, also offers a haunted hay ride at Halloween, for example, and an egg hunt at Easter.

Those activities create a lot of commotion in the area, neighbors say.

In 2010, Sam Lesjak purchased a 1926 farmhouse next door to Piney Acre Farms. He and his family were looking for a home away from the hustle and bustle of Indianapolis.

They thought they found a piece of heaven on County Road 1000N. Instead, it’s been a nightmare, he said.

For nearly five years, he’s fought with the activities that run throughout the year next door. They create noise and traffic and tax the area’s infrastructure, he said.

But what’s more concerning to him and his fellow neighbors is that they weren’t invited to participate in the discussion about possible changes to the ordinance, he said.

Residents weren’t part of the group formed to draft changes because the plan commission didn’t instruct Dale to meet with them, but Dale said he voiced their concerns after receiving letters and emails from area residents.

The proposed buffer standard, which requires a farmer with activity closer than 200 feet to a residential building to establish trees, shrubbery or a wall to block some of the noise and sight, was in response to some of those concerns, Dale said.

But Lesjack said that’s not enough.

“I can live with tractors; I can live with the smell of pig poop because I know it’s seasonal,” he said. “This is all year long.”

Roy Ballard, Purdue Extension coordinator for Hancock County, served as a liaison to area farmers while the proposed changes were being crafted. The farmers in the group considered how these businesses affect their neighbors, he said.

Those changes are a good idea, he said, because they’ll create more opportunities for farmers to take advantage of agribusiness, which could be beneficial to the entire county.

“Nothing is perfect,” he said. “Almost immediately after the first ordinance was drafted, it was clear there were holes. This hopefully addresses them.”

Lesjak and his neighbors are concerned about the events the farm could host. They bring people who are noisy and who create litter near their homes, they say.

Dale said the commission likely will give both sides a chance to speak at Tuesday’s meeting.

Members could vote to table the discussion indefinitely, decide it needs further review or make a recommendation on whether to pass the changes on to the commissioners for final approval.

No matter what they do, it will likely be difficult to please everyone involved, Dale said.

“We’re trying to strike a balance,” he said.

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What: Hancock County Area Plan Commission public hearing to discuss proposed changes to the county’s agribusiness ordinance

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Hancock County Courthouse Annex, 111 American Legion Place, Greenfield