Traverse City News and Events

New Wrinkles Emerge In Old Mission Peninsula Wineries Lawsuit

By Craig Manning | Feb. 19, 2021

Discovery, mediation, and a potential intervention from a new player: just a few of the newest turns in a federal lawsuit filed last fall by the Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula Association (WOMP) against Peninsula Township.

On Tuesday, Protect the Peninsula (PTP), an advocacy group made up of Old Mission Peninsula residents, filed a motion in federal court asking to join the lawsuit as a co-defendant alongside Peninsula Township. That development came in the same week that attorneys for both sides met to talk through scheduling for the next stages of the lawsuit.

The suit – which alleges that the township’s zoning laws restrict the wineries in unfair, burdensome, or even unconstitutional ways – hit an apparent snag for the plaintiffs in January. Judge Paul Maloney of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan denied a preliminary injunction motion that would have temporarily barred Peninsula Township from enforcing the zoning regulations in question. Those regulations bar the 11 Old Mission Peninsula wineries from hosting weddings or live amplified music, selling t-shirts, running restaurant or off-site catering operations, and setting their own hours, among other restrictions.

In a status update posted on the Peninsula Township website on January 19, township attorney Gregory Meihn called the injunction decision “a win” for the township, given Maloney’s conclusion that WOMP had failed to prove the injunction would prevent “irreparable harm” to the wineries.

Despite that conclusion, WOMP attorney Joseph Infante sees promise in Judge Maloney’s findings.

“The court denied [our injunction motion], but the judge gave the parties direction of where he sees the strengths and weaknesses [of the case],” Infante tells The Ticker. “He said that the preemption claims by the wineries have merit, and those are sort of our core claims – dealing with restaurant, catering, hours of operation, entertainment, music, that kind of stuff. So we were very happy with that language.”

The “preemption claims” Infante mentions concern township regulations that WOMP argues are preempted and thus rendered unenforceable by the Michigan Liquor Control Code. For instance, Old Mission wineries are allowed by the Michigan Liquor Control Commission (MLCC) to operate until 2am, but are required under township zoning rules to close at 9:30pm. Judge Maloney wrote that the court “finds more merit in Plaintiffs’ MLCC preemption arguments” than in its allegations that Peninsula Township’s winery regulations are unconstitutional.

Judge Maloney also urged the parties to pursue mediation with a third party instead of trial litigation. Infante says the parties have until March 31 to try mediation and are discussing dates “to do that in the next month or so.”

Those plans for mediation come as the case moves through the discovery phase and as the PTP resident group seeks to intervene, which could change the dynamics of any potential settlement talks.

According to Cornell Law School, civil cases open the door for third parties (known as intervenors) to enter into a case if they have “a personal stake in the outcome.” Tracy Jane Andrews, PTP’s lawyer, feels the advocacy group meets this requirement and other legal standards that would be necessary for the intervening motion to be granted.

“[The wineries] have taken the position that the township has no legal authority to regulate liquor license holders,” Andrews says. “That the township cannot regulate, for instance, what hour the wineries close in the evening under zoning law, because that is entirely decided by their liquor licenses. So I think what's at issue in this case is not ‘Should we change the zoning ordinance?’ It’s whether we can regulate wineries. And I think PTP does have a strong interest in maintaining the township's ability to regulate land uses when they affect neighbors and neighboring land uses.”

PTP has argued that changes to winery regulations would lead to “more intense commercial use of agricultural land than currently allowed,” in turn bringing more traffic to Center Road, more “disturbance for neighbors resulting from events, restaurants, and tasting rooms continuing into the early morning hours,” and other consequences.

PTP will need to prove that it meets four legal standards for the court to grant its motion. Those include timeliness; whether PTP has a substantial legal interest in the case; whether those interests may be impaired as a result of the case; and whether those interests are different from the township’s interests.

For his part, Chris Baldyga, president of WOMP and co-founder of Old Mission’s 2 Lads Winery, is surprised at the level of pushback the wineries have gotten from some peninsula residents.

“I can appreciate that other people love and believe in the peninsula, and have opposing views,” he says. “I just don't appreciate it that they keep calling the wineries ‘commercial.’ We are agricultural businesses and small family farms. Small local agriculture is failing, and when you've got successful things like apple cideries and wineries that can keep greenspace protected and keep agriculture going, I think they need cheerleaders, not people minimizing them and keeping their success down.”

Baldyga continues, "We're just asking for the rights that are allowed by the Michigan Liquor Control permits, and those are things that wineries almost anywhere should be able to do on farmland.”

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