It was standing room only at the Bainbridge Board of Zoning Appeals public hearing last week. On the Dec. 19 agenda was Chagrin Valley School at Kelly’s Working Well Farm, whose owners stated that Zoning Inspector Karen Endres had erred in revoking the organization’s conditional-use permit for agriculture after inspections in September and October.
Ms. Endres, however, stood her ground at the meeting on the actions she took.
Thirty-four children and several staff members were removed from the farm following a citation from the Bainbridge Fire Department after Assistant Chief Bill Lovell issued a serious hazard order. Chagrin Valley School was to address the hazards behind the citation as well as obtain the correct conditional-use permit, officials said, if they were to continue operations.
The citation was discussed in a meeting on Dec. 17 with Kelly Clark, owner of Kelly’s Working Well Farm at 16519 S. Franklin St. in Bainbridge, where an agreement judgment was made.
“The agreement judgment says that we can’t occupy the structure for public use. Not for the school or for fundraisers or things like that,” Mr. Lovell explained. “But the farm operations can continue.”
Ms. Clark during the Dec. 19 meeting addressed the property’s alleged zoning issues with legal assistance from Emily Collins, of Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services. Ms. Collins asserted that Kelly’s Working Well Farm does not constitute a school or daycare, but is rather within definitions for agriculture and agritourism.
Ms. Clark said that she purchased the property where the farm is located in July of 2012, and filed domestic nonprofit articles of incorporation with the state of Ohio. The approved corporation was formed “to create a small scale diversified educational farm based on permaculture principles that would serve as a model of sustainable community-based agriculture while teaching about and providing food and other products to the community,” Ms. Clark said.
While Ms. Clark was previously teaching at Hawken School, she began conducting workshops that were open to the community. In 2016, Ms. Clark said she started Chagrin Valley School, and in 2018, she officially filed the trade name of the school in correspondence with the state’s adoption of agritourism protections for educational and recreational programming of farms.
Ms. Clark said the school day is from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. for preschool participants and 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. for elementary through high school children. She explained that the school was created to give children a chance to be a part of a democratic society within the context of the farm.
“We have no agenda for the kids other than they’re there to explore their learning on their own,” Ms. Clark said.
She added that there are no curriculum-based goals at the school and that all participants are registered as homeschoolers with the state. If a student expresses interest in a subject, members of the school staff are able to assist the children in pursuing studies in that subject or will find an expert with whom the student may study.
Without having the school on the farm, Ms. Clark said, participants lose out on meaningful experiences. Some of those experiences include making decisions about caring for animals, which, in an example given by Ms. Clark, may mean deciding to slaughter a rooster when it has been bullying hens.
“They’re (the students) making life and death decisions, literally, and they’re part of that,” she said.
The farm property originally had a house and a shed on it, Ms. Clark said, but now has 10 buildings. One of the buildings, known as the Tree Barn, was constructed using straw bales and was registered as an agricultural building with the township with intent to host members of the public when they came to learn about the farm. The Tree Barn’s conditional-use permit was revoked after Ms. Endres visited the farm and saw the building being predominantly used as an educational facility rather than agricultural production with occasional visits from the public.
“I did not see any of the activities or uses in the building that were described in the original application,” Ms. Endres said. “The building appeared to be used now as a classroom and administrative building.”
Ms. Endres added that when the school first opened in 2016, it was her understanding that it was to be an enrichment program for homeschool students. After finding out that the school was tuition-based and observing the activities there, she believed it should be categorized as a private school, not just a farm.
Ms. Endres also confirmed that the tax forms from the farm indicated that the income came predominantly from tuition rather than the selling of farm products.
After receiving a request for guidance about health hazards from Mr. Lovell, Geauga Director of Environmental Health David Sage said he visited the farm. He said that the Geauga County Board of Health will be issuing a violation pertaining to the composting toilet on the site, which has no permits.
Mr. Sage said he was also alarmed to find a bathroom facility constructed out of plywood and a tarp with a toilet seat over a bucket, though staff member Ian Mungall explained that the structure was for a previous educational event and is not currently used by staff or students.
Going forward, the Board of Zoning Appeals requested further evidence, including the farm’s financial records for the past three years as well as the full enrollment form for the school. No decision was made at the meeting last week.