Bainbridge Township officials said that they are concerned with some safety matters at Chagrin Valley School at Kelly’s Working Well Farm and are taking actions to resolve the issues. The township fire department has issued an order to stop operations and has issued a citation listing violations. The zoning department is also requesting the farm owner to obtain a conditional-use zoning permit to operate.
“Our goal is to maintain a safe environment for these students,” Bainbridge Assistant Fire Chief Bill Lovell said of students who take part in the programs at the farm.
Kelly Clark, owner of Kelly’s Working Well Farm at 16519 South Franklin St. in the township, said she is appealing a township zoning department’s action “to force us to seek a conditional-use permit for the operations.” The farm was established in 2012. The school, currently with 34 students, opened in 2016, Ms. Clark said.
Her attorney, Emily Collins, of Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services, has also filed a request for a declaratory judgment in Geauga County Common Pleas Court asking if the educational program at the farm is protected from township interference under the Ohio agritourism law.
If the educational programming does constitute agritourism, Ms. Clark said, then the question is does the fire marshal and the Geauga County Department of Health have authority to impose building standards and health code requirements on the school.
“Our programs are for home school students and we are not a school. We don’t have curriculum for state mandated academic requirements,” Ms. Clark said.
The children come at around 8:30 a.m. and get picked up after 3 p.m. and they have a flexible schedule. They can come for three to five days during the week, according to Ms. Clark.
In Ohio, the agritourism law allows farms to engage in agricultural education without being subject to local zoning standards, Ms. Clark said.
“We are willing to work with the fire marshal to come to a reasonable agreement about safety standards,” she said. “Complying with all the health and building codes would change the nature of what we do as a farm. We are here to show innovative practices and to demonstrate and share with the community about agriculture and sustainable living. The township is trying to make us switch from agriculture to a conditional use.”
Assistant Fire Chief Lovell said some issues need to be addressed. “We followed up, and we were not aware of the school and the preschool being operated there,” he said.
“We understood it was a destination for home-schooled children to visit and we found it was a full-time operation,” he said. “We found they had year-round students. Because of its uniqueness, we started asking other agencies and while doing an investigation, we found multiple and significant fire violations involving all of the structures,” he said.
While the owner believes it is a farm, all structures are open to the public including facilities used for education operations that are subject to the Ohio Fire Code, Assistant Fire Chief Lovell said. “We are concerned for the safety of the occupants. We have no choice but to represent the best interests and safety of the occupants.
“With assistance of the state fire marshal, the township zoning office and the Geauga County building and health departments, we determined that its operations in the present form are hazardous until substantial improvements are made,” Assistant Fire Chief Lovell said.
“We issued a hazardous order to stop operations and are waiting for repairs to be made before they can again operate. And at this point the matter is in the hands of the Geauga County prosecutor,” he said.
Bainbridge Zoning Inspector Karen Endres said in 2016 the farm was used as an enrichment program for home-schooled children. It was not a school at the time.
A firefighter from another community had attended a fundraising event at the farm and noticed a multitude of safety violations relative to serving the public, Bainbridge officials said.
Mrs. Endres said she sent a letter in October to the owner stating that private schools are a conditional use in a residential zoning district so the owner needs to obtain a permit from the Bainbridge Board of Zoning Appeals. She has asked the owner to cease operating the school until a permit is acquired.
Mrs. Endres said she revoked the agricultural exemption for one building at the farm that appeared to be a school and/or a day care rather than an agricultural use. It appears the use changed from what was represented in the application in 2016, she added.