Winery Lawsuit Information

Wine harvest in Traverse City

Old Mission Peninsula wineries, built of farmers and families, have been working to preserve land in sustainable agriculture since the 1970’s.  Winery owners are also residents and seek to operate family farms and businesses while realizing their rights in a way that mitigates impact to the neighbors and greater community.  Since 2008, the wineries have collectively asked for a clear winery ordinance that all can understand, and which mitigates noise, traffic and other impacts to our shared township.  These family businesses pay over $650,000 annually in property and personal property tax and employ hundreds of people, utilizing local businesses and fellow farms as vendors and partners. 

With over 1,540 acres in active production, wineries are an important piece of an ecosystem that supports agriculture in an independent form, avoiding more land conversion to home sites.  Supporting these businesses allows them to be competitive in the evolving global wine economy and meet changing customer demands which result in a healthy environment for all.  More local wine = more vineyards and land in long term agriculture! 

A great rift amongst neighbors now exists due to a lack of understanding about what wineries are seeking in a lawsuit against Peninsula Township and how we got where we are.  Would wineries destroy the very community that nurtures their produce, raises their families, and provides recreational opportunities for all?  No.  Would the wineries have preferred to find compromise and resolution years ago through collaboration and frank discussions with all involved stakeholders?  Of course!  As the Township itself disclaims on agenda after agenda related to closed sessions to discuss ongoing litigation, “an open meeting would have a detrimental financial effect on the litigation or settlement position of the Township,” so too must wineries refrain from public comment on our negotiations and claims while this process plays out.

The updates to the Ordinances that the Wineries have been seeking for over 15 years are because times change,  customers change, the wine industry has changed and wine businesses need to adapt after 50 years.  The Township Director of Planning and Zoning put it plainly herself, “A zoning ordinance is intended to be a living document. It can be changed, just as we’re making changes now.” Jenn Cram, 12-13-2022 Town Board Minutes ( Unfortunately the changes passed with amendment 201 obliterated the ability for farmers to conduct agritourism businesses.

Going back as far as 2008, the wineries attempted to work with the township to correct and update the winery ordinances.
Document Link to Historical Meeting Notes & Minutes with All Parties Involved 

Here’s what we can say to attempt to clarify the great volume of misinformation that has been spread:

  1. This lawsuit was precipitated by inaction from Peninsula Township after years of the wineries requesting and holding public meetings to discuss the winery ordinances.

    -On July 9, 2019, the Wineries sent a legal memorandum to the Township identifying ways in which the Winery Ordinances were unconstitutional, preempted by state law, or could be clarified and streamlined. 

-On August 23, 2019, counsel for Peninsula Township responded with his own memorandum wherein he agreed with the Wineries that many of the Winery Ordinances needed to be amended to make them legal. 

-This kicked off public meetings between the Wineries and the Township to discuss needed changes or amendments to the Winery Ordinances.  These public meetings were attended by the public, winery members, a sub-committee of the Planning Commission, the Township planner, and the Township attorney.

-A year later, on September 21, 2020, Peninsula Township published a proposed redraft of the Winery Ordinances. Not only did it lack many of the changes the Township attorney’s memo said were necessary but actually contained changes which made the Winery Ordinances more illegal.

-Seeing this breakdown of progress and productive dialogue, the Wineries decided that filing a Federal lawsuit against Peninsula Township to change these ordinances was their only path to relief.

– Even after filing the lawsuit, the Wineries were still attempting to resolve the issue. A meeting occurred with Township officials and attorneys in early November 2020, but the Township did not take the meeting seriously.  One Township official emailed a member of Protect the Peninsula (PTP) about the meeting and commented that the Wineries “have to be kidding” and any settlement proposal was “dead on arrival.”   He also noted that he was glad he was wearing a mask so he “could hide the full expression on my face.”

  1. A year after the lawsuit was filed, in September of 2021, the Wineries and the Township mediated the case and reached a settlement.

-After 25 hours of mediation with winery owners, Township Board members, and attorneys from both sides, an agreed upon settlement was drafted bringing mediation to a seemingly successful close. Contrary to statements made by Peninsula Township, this was not an all or nothing settlement.  The negotiations spanned more than 25 hours of give and take before a compromise that both sides could live with was reached. 

-At the following “St Joe’s Church Meeting” the Township Board reversed course and refused to sign the settlement agreement.

-The Federal judge presiding over the case, Judge Maloney, then sanctioned and fined the Township for backing out of the agreement.
Document Link 1
Document Link 2 

-If not for Peninsula Township’s refusal, this case would have been resolved more than two years ago in the fall of 2021.

  1. With Peninsula Township backing out of the mediated settlement and refusing to make necessary changes to the Winery Ordinances, the Wineries were left with no choice but to continue with the lawsuit.

-This culminated with the Federal Court in June of 2022 granting the Wineries summary judgment finding that the Winery Ordinances were both unconstitutional and preempted by state law.  The Court’s reasoning was nearly identical to the reasoning attorneys from the Wineries and Peninsula Township made in their July and August 2019 memorandum.  
Read the Summary Judgment 

-Following the Court’s ruling, the only critical issue left to decide was the amount of damages to which the Wineries were entitled which was calculated to that point in time. A trial on this issue was scheduled for August of 2022.  

  1. The trial was delayed allowing a fringe citizens group (PTP) to participate in the case, but PTP’s involvement has not changed anything aside from adding time and cost to all parties in the lawsuit.

-Judge Maloney still ruled that the winery ordinances were unconstitutional in multiple ways. 

-Instead of going to trial in August of 2022 the case is now set for trial in April of 2024.

-Delaying the trial also means a longer period of time that the constitutional rights of the Wineries are being violated. In other words, the damage to the Wineries continues.

-Delaying trial also means that the legal fees for both the Township and the Wineries continue to grow, as well as demanding great amounts of time from both parties.

-The Township is on the hook, per Constitutional Law (Section 1988, to pay the Wineries’ attorney’s fees at the end of this case. 

  1.  Finally, on the issue of damages, from the outset of this process, Peninsula wineries have been seeking the right to operate their businesses as they are legally allowed to do.

Peninsula Township’s refusal to work with the Wineries forced the Wineries to file this lawsuit and, like any other litigant, seek damages for the harm Peninsula Township’s ordinances have caused to their businesses.  As to the amount of damages, that will be decided by the Court.  However, as to how those damages will be paid, Peninsula Township has advised its residents that it has insurance to cover the damages the Wineries seek.  Many residents have asked to know the total amount of insurance coverage, but the Township has not disclosed this amount.  If there is a concern that the damages claim of the Wineries is not fully covered by insurance, residents should demand that the Township disclose exactly how much is covered by insurance.

-The Township was recently sanctioned and fined a second time by Judge Maloney for failing to disclose all applicable insurance policies.  Residents should ask the Township why they were not disclosed before and why the Township wanted to hide that information.  
This sanction resulted in a fine to the Township, which was paid via their insurance company on 12/7/2023.
Document Link 1
Document Link 2 

-During a June 8, 2021, Town Board meeting, counsel for Peninsula Township, in response to a citizen question advised that if the Township lost this case it would be fully covered except for the cost of the deductible.  This is consistent with a review of the Township’s insurance policies.  Copies can be found here: (Document Link).  Township public statements and behavior have reflected that their insurance coverage is adequate.

Recent mailers are inaccurate and simply intended to scare Township residents and shift their focus away from the mismanagement of Peninsula Township which has been occurring for years.

-Feb 16 2024
“It seems that not only did the Township publicly express an intent to re-enact the problematic legislation, but also did so when it passed Amendment 201.”
Link to Order Resolving Motion to Dismiss


12/27/2023 Update: PTP’s motion to exclude WOMP experts denied by the Court.
Motion Link  

Article Links:

It’s Time to Take Back the Old Mission Peninsula
Old Mission Gazette, December 4, 2023

Old Mission Farmers Worried After Winery Lawsuit Prompts New Rules, December 13, 2022 

We Are Farmers
Old Mission Gazette, November 12, 2022

Wineries File Suit – Here’s Why
Old Mission Gazette, October 22, 2020