BAINBRIDGE — After two years in “limbo,” Kelly’s Working Well last week filed a motion in the Geauga Common Pleas Court to dismiss an injunction against the farm prohibiting visitors, claiming it be “moot” with the relocation of the Chagrin Valley School.
The injunction on the 16519 S. Franklin St. farm was put in place as part of the Ohio Fire Code violations that Assistant Fire Chief Bill Lovell cited against the farm. The court action prohibits Kelly’s Working Well from having visitors on the property until all violations are resolved, including the Chagrin Valley School, according to court records.
Kelly Clark, owner of Kelly’s Working Well Farm, told the Times that because she no longer hosts the Chagrin Valley School, the judgment entry should no longer stand. According to the judgment entry, farm operations can continue, but it restricts “anyone” from entering the property or its structures until the farm is in full compliance with Ohio Fire Code.
She clarified that she still has full intention of resolving all the fire code violations and that this motion is intended to help improve farm operations.
“What we’re saying is that the injunction should be dismissed because we’ve done everything that we can to resolve the citation, everything in our power, but more importantly because the conditions under which it was created no longer exist,” Ms. Clark explained. The citations were created under the claim the farm was operating a school on the premises, she said, noting the program is no longer located at the farm.
She added, as a matter of fact, the entity itself no longer exists.
School is dismissed
As of mid-August, the DBA, or trade name, of Chagrin Valley School, has officially been canceled, Ms. Clark told the Times.
“So that entity no longer exists,” she said. “It’s being transformed into a mainly parent-led learning collective. So, the community’s staying together, but it’s not under the auspices of Chagrin Valley School anymore.
“That’s just another way to emphasize that it’s not a program being managed by Kelly’s Working Well Farm,” Ms. Clark said. “It’s not going to be part of the farm, but it’s the group of people who still have the belief in self-directed learning for their children and will still be doing a scaled down program, a three-days-a-week program.”
She said the program does not currently have a formal name, nor is it in session because the collective has yet to nail down a new location. Ms. Clark said she will be involved in the learning collective from an individual standpoint as a staff member, but no longer on behalf of the farm.
Over the summer, the collective has held field-trip-type activities at different locations and has even welcomed new families through word of mouth.
“We’ve been moving in this direction for years, [toward] having it be more of a collective decision making [program]. That’s the philosophy, anyway,” she said. “That’s the direction we’ve been wanting to move in, anyway, now this is really formalizing that.”
How did we get here?
Ms. Clark and her husband William Rowe purchased their 6-acre parcel of land in Bainbridge in July of 2012. She filed to incorporate Kelly’s Working Well Farm as an Ohio nonprofit corporation “with a mission 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,” according to documentation from Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services.
It wasn’t until August of 2018 that Ms. Clark registered the trade name “Chagrin Valley School” as the branch of the nonprofit for agricultural education.
In September and October of 2019, Ms. Clark’s organization received inspections from Assistant Chief Lovell, the State Fire Marshal, Bainbridge Zoning Inspector Karen Endres and the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.
On Oct. 25, 2019, Kelly’s Working Well received a letter from Mrs. Endres telling Ms. Clark to cease operations of the Chagrin Valley School. The letter stated that “a conditional-use zoning certificate is required for a private school in the R3A [rural residential] zoning district,” where the farm is located.
By the end of October 2019, Ms. Clark began working with attorney Emily Collins of Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services before further inspections took place via an administrative search warrant through Chardon Municipal Court.
Assistant Chief Lovell cited in the warrant numerous violations of Ohio Fire Code, including unapproved heating, questionable integrity of exhaust ventilation, the location of electrical heaters near combustible material, extensive use of extension cords, inadequate fire-resistant construction, an abundance of combustible decorations and wall hangings and a lack of fire and smoke detection devices, among many others.
As a result, Assistant Chief Lovell issued Kelly’s Working Well Farm a citation notice on Nov. 7, 2019 for 25 violations and corresponding orders to resolve the violations. The citation included thousands of dollars in fines for each day violations were not resolved, according to the notice.
That same month, following serious hazard citations and orders and Mrs. Endres’ revocation of the farm’s zoning certificate, 34 students and several staff members were removed from the farm and Ms. Clark’s organization ceased all operations to host the public.
Since the 2019 citations and closure of the Chagrin Valley School at the farm, the issue has come up in numerous court cases and appeals including the township Board of Zoning Appeals, fire department, the county courts and state level officials.
Ms. Clark, with the legal representation of attorney Ms. Collins, appealed to the Bainbridge BZA, stating that Mrs. Endres erred in revoking the farm’s conditional-use permit for agriculture, claiming to be offering agritourism under Ohio protections for educational and recreational programming of farms.
The initial hearing took place on Dec. 19, 2019 and was continued until the April 30, 2020 special meeting where the board upheld the classification of the farm’s programming as a school.
Because Chagrin Valley School charged tuition – in addition to several other BZA findings like hours of operation, enrollment procedures, the use of “school” in its name and students’ pursuit of subjects like reading and writing – the entity qualified as a private school, according to the township definition, as opposed to Ms. Clark’s stance that they operated as agritourism.
Ms. Clark explained that the Chagrin Valley School did not qualify as agritourism via farm operations under township definitions because they did not have the appropriate documented farm revenue of an average of $2,500 per year.
According to the April 30, 2020 meeting, financial records indicated that the Chagrin Valley School “had almost all of its income from tuition charged to students at the rate of $52,000 for 2016, $82,656 for 2017 and $138,632 for 2018,” earning less than $1,000 each of those respective years through the sale of agricultural products.
Ms. Clark then appealed this decision in August of 2020 in the Geauga common pleas court, which referred the case to mediation on May 7 and June 18 of this year, according to court records.
According to the Aug. 24 motion to dismiss the injunction, “the mediation did not result in a settlement of this matter. Throughout the entirety of the pendency of this litigation, the only activity at Kelly’s Working Well Farm has been agricultural.”
Kelly’s Working Well has since been able to generate the proper farm revenue with the respective documentation, Ms. Clark said, noting they brought in about $10,000 in farm revenue last year.
As for the health and safety citations, the farm filed an appeal to the Ohio Board of Building Appeals, where a hearing took place on Jan. 16, 2020 that upheld the citations, according to the court records. On Feb. 18, 2020, the farm also appealed the state order in common pleas court. All cases involving Kelly’s Working Well Farm, which started in Geauga Common Pleas Judge David Ondrey’s court, have since been consolidated in Judge Carolyn Paschke’s court.
Ms. Clark told the Times that in the meantime, she has consulted with architects and engineers to resolve the health and safety violations.
Once the zoning board upheld their school classification, following the state’s upholding of the fire code violations and mediation’s failure to work out a settlement, Ms. Clark said the farm pivoted away from arguing the classification to resolving the citations in order to better operate as a farm with the intention of bringing education and agritourism back in the distant future. Since the issue remains in litigation and she has pursued resolving the violations, she has not had to pay any fines as of yet.
“If they want to call the program a school, then we’ll figure out how to accommodate the requirements to bring a program like that back to the farm, but we can’t do that until we resolve the citations,” she said.
Work to be done
Ms. Clark said Kelly’s Working Well has difficulty operating fully as a farm because she cannot have family members, friends or customers on the property due to the restrictions in place.
She told the Times that the farm has resolved most of the violations, like the removal of extension cords and firewood as well as removing cooking activities like the stove and sink from the farm’s pavilion. And by removing some of these items, it triggered a domino effect of remedying other citations.
There are bigger issues, however, that require oversight and risky investment, she said. The farm has no plumbing but is required to include two bathrooms in the pavilion in order to make it an acceptable structure for educational activities. To bring the electrical system of the farm in compliance, they would have to dismantle their entire system and replace it, which she said could cost upwards of $50,000.
The farm could go ahead and make the corrections, but without a permit, they run the risk of making changes still deemed unacceptable under state fire marshal regulations, she said. The farm cannot get a permit, however, because the Geauga County Building Department does not inspect farm structures.
“We were directed to go to the state fire marshal,” Ms. Clark said, explaining the county department referred her to the state’s Division of Industrial Compliance. After several attempts of communication with the state division, she said she received a letter in early August this year referring the inspection back to local officials.
“[The state fire marshals] recommended the county Building Department and the fire inspector who wrote the citation,” she said, referring to a letter she received from the state division.
“It’s finally been made clear that we really are in a catch-22, which we’ve known for a long time, but now it’s clear,” Ms. Clark said. “There should be a way for us to resolve this, keeping in mind that all we’re asking for is normal farm operations. We’re not even requesting to be able to do agritourism at this point, let alone having a year-round educational program.”
Looking forward to when all is resolved, Ms. Clark said the farm does fully intend to return to having agritourism activities on site.
“We do intend to bring a year-round educational program back to the farm, but [we’re] sort of starting from scratch in a way,” she said.
The farm is considering a fundraising campaign to support the construction of a building with a proper occupancy permit, an initiative of which she estimated will cost at least $500,000.
“We’re willing to jump into a half-a-million-dollar fundraising campaign,” Ms. Clark said. “So, will Bainbridge be willing to work with us to bring a program like that to the farm?”
While this future plan is contingent upon resolving the remaining violations with court approval of the injunction, Ms. Clark said she’s thinking positive.
“I’m always optimistic that the citations are going to get resolved,” she said. “I am trying to figure out a way that we can move forward with planning for the future at the same time as we wait for the citations to be resolved.”