Lawsuit filed

KENTLAND — A lawsuit has been filed claiming 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 was filed 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.

On July 23, the county’s planning commission voted to give an unfavorable recommendation for the 1881 Ranch’s zoning change request.

The lawsuit alleges that County Commissioner Tim Drenth, who also serves on the planning commission, said the unfavorable recommendation by the planning commission was a result of 1881 Ranch’s petition lacking an operating agreement.

On Aug. 5, 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 2-1.

The lawsuit argues 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 claims 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 are asking the court to issue an order staying the effect of the commissioners’ adoption of 1881 Ranch’s operating agreement, to set aside the decision and remand it back to the commissioners so that proper procedure can be followed.

Newton County Attorney Pat Ryan informed the Newton County Enterprise that he is reviewing the complaint, but that “I can assure everyone that the county will vigorously defend itself from these types of claims.”

In a related matter, after Ryan informed the commissioners about the lawsuit and who the attorneys were during the commissioners’ Sept. 3 meeting, a motion was made and approved (2-1) announcing “Newton County will no longer do business with attorneys that sue the county.”

Prior to that motion being made by Commissioner Drenth, he said isn’t he (referring to attorney Ryan Washburn) one of the county’s public defenders.

“He needs to be dismissed,” replied Commissioner Mickey Read.

Attorney Ryan did not want to comment specifically about Attorney Washburn because he stated he was not yet sure how the motion would be applied to his situation as a public defender.

“I can say, however, that I think that before the county implements this policy, the commissioners will make a reasonable effort to coordinate the scope of its application with the courts in order to fully assess its effect on the county’s various public indigency programs,” stated Ryan. “Obviously the commissioners’ intent here is to try and protect the public interest, and it would seem that Newton County does not appreciate being sued by the very same lawyers it also presently employs. Frankly, I don’t think anyone would.”

Attorney Ryan Washburn did not want to comment on the lawsuit as it is still a pending matter and issued a brief statement about the recent commissioners’ vote.

“I am for the law and my firm and I work very hard to serve our clients to the best of our abilities,” said Washburn.