KENTLAND — A lawsuit filed against the Newton County Commissioners regarding a zoning decision for the 1881 Ranch gun club was dismissed in Newton County Circuit Court Jan. 15, 2020.
“Obviously, I’m pleased with the result,” said Newton County Attorney Patrick Ryan, who successfully defended the case. “ I appreciate the Court’s ruling and I’m quite certain it was the correct decision under Indiana law. These zoning cases are complex and lawyers need to understand and comply with the statutory deadlines. It’s critical that the record is timely filed.”
The lawsuit (a petition for judicial review) was filed Aug. 30, 2019 by attorneys Ryan and Brigitte Washburn on behalf of their clients John and Judy Earnshaw, owners of a new wedding venue (Stone Creek Woods) that is adjacent to the land that was rezoned for 1881 Ranch. The lawsuit claimed that the Newton County Commissioners failed to follow statutory procedure in its decision to change the zoning for 1881 Ranch, a planned private gun club on the eastern edge of Newton County in Jackson Township.
The lawsuit alleged that County Commissioner Tim Drenth, who also serves on the planning commission, said the unfavorable recommendation by the planning commission for the zoning change was a result of 1881 Ranch’s petition lacking an operating agreement.
On Aug. 5, 2019, 1881 Ranch founder William Egbert Jr. presented an operating agreement to the commissioners. Drenth then made a motion to adopt the operating agreement and the motion passed by a 2-1 vote by the commissioners.
The lawsuit argued that the commissioners approved the Planned Unit Development (PUD) zoning for 1881 Ranch without a written ordinance or proposal. The lawsuit also states that the commissioners’ adoption of the operating agreement was unlawful because:
- The commissioners failed to determine and document what development standards, if any, were to apply to the PUD.
- The commissioners’ adoption of the operating agreement is not supported by, and contravenes, the evidence that went before the commissioners.
The lawsuit also claimed that the Earnshaws have been prejudiced by the zoning change because it effectively prevents them from developing and running their wedding venue business.
The Earnshaws asked the court to reverse the zoning decision, and to allow them to recover compensatory damages and attorneys’ fees from Newton County. That complaint was later amended to remove some of these demands.
County Attorney Ryan filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit back on October 30, 2019, stating the Earnshaws and their attorneys failed to timely file the required record with the court, and failed to properly serve the petition.
An oral argument on the county’s motion took place Dec. 11, at which time Circuit Court Judge Jeryl Leach took the matter under advisement and subsequently issued an order on January 15th completely granting the county’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit and effectively denying all substantive claims.
“Newton County followed the law in this case,” added Ryan. “The process was transparent and there were a number of public hearings on the matter. The simple fact that an individual might disagree with the County Commissioners, in and of itself, does not provide an adequate basis to run over and file a lawsuit. Our Commissioners are asked to make very difficult decisions, and they have a duty to represent the best interests of over 14,000 people. In doing so, they have to try and balance individual interests against the greater common good. It is not an easy job.”
County Attorney Ryan has now successfully defended Newton County in several other recent legal battles, including winning the lawsuit filed by S&S Swine Farms challenging the Board of Zoning Appeals’ decision to deny a special exception for a confined feeding operation targeting the Lake Village and Roselawn area.
In the past several months the county has also faced several other legal complaints arising from the Natural Prairie Dairy near Lake Village, as well as winning a legal challenge to Kentland and the County Election Board by the late Gary Foster over redistricting for the town.