A neighborly dispute; Chase Township resident opposes sawmill construction next door

By Kyle Leppek

Pioneer News Service

CHASE TWP. — Disagreements and grievances between neighbors aren’t unheard of, but perhaps few go as far as the dispute between two neighbors in Chase Township has gone.

For the past eight years, Brenda Crane has lived with her husband Eugene at their home on Hawkins Road. The couple chose to settle in the area because it seemed to offer the serenity they were looking for when they decided to leave Southeast Michigan.

That serenity, however, seems to have been broken during the past year, at least in their opinion.

When traveling down Hawkins Road in Chase Township, commuters may have noticed the signs that line the Crane’s yard. Brenda’s multiple homemade signs express anger with the sawmill facility that is being built on the property next door to her own.

Since November 2012, the Cranes have been opposed to the building of a new facility by Thorn Creek Lumber, of Evart.

The Cranes first noticed a new neighbor might be moving next door in August 2012. During that time, Eugene walked over to the property and left his name and number with construction workers to welcome the new property owners to the community.

When the new owner contacted the Cranes, Brenda answered the phone. It was then that Wilmer Yoder, co-owner of Thorn Creek Lumber, informed Brenda that a residence wasn’t being built, but a sawmill was.

Yoder declined to comment for this story.

As initial construction began, Brenda noticed smoke, ash, debris and other chemical smells in the air coming from the adjacent property. At that time, Brenda made Yoder aware that it was bothering her due to her allergies, she said.

“In November it started getting thicker with the burning,” she said. “Nov. 5, I was out here and I was doing a little yard work and I was feeding my dogs. All of a sudden, the smoke and the chemicals were so strong I fell; I passed out. I couldn’t breathe.”

Brenda went to the hospital still choking, she said. After spending two days in the hospital, it was determined that what she experienced was caused by smoke inhalation due to the nearby clear cutting and burning, a hospital report stated.

Following the incident, Brenda raised concerns with the township board about having the facility next to her property. However, there was little the township could do, said Ken Shoemaker, Chase Township supervisor.

“We are not zoned, so we did not have anything to do with that,” Shoemaker said. “All (Yoder) had to do is get a building permit (from the county) and he can put it in.”

Although, the township was interested in seeing if a compromise between the two parties could be worked out.

“We had a special meeting for the Cranes and for the Amish to try to work something out,” Shoemaker said. “We didn’t have to; it was just us going over and above.”

While representatives from Thorn Creek Lumber and residents within a mile of the new facility attended the meeting, the Cranes did not due to the condition of Brenda’s health.

Yoder supplied floor plans during the meeting, a few questions were asked and overall attendees seemed supportive of the business, Shoemaker said.

However, a compromise or solution was never reached between the Cranes and Yoder.

At a certain point, Yoder offered to purchase the Crane’s property, Brenda said. However, they refused the offer.

“I told him, ‘For what you would even ask me, it would not even attempt to repay what we have done here,’” she said.

Sometime after Brenda’s hospitalization, Yoder and his wife sent Brenda a card which addressed her health. The card, which was shown to the Herald Review, states they were “sorry about the sickness” and it also acknowledges “burning the trees on our new property.”

While construction halted during the winter, Brenda says it began again in April.

As a way to express her thoughts on the situation, Brenda started displaying homemade signs in her front yard describing her displeasure with the sawmill. The signs address her illness, anger with local governments and feeling forced out of her home.

“If they can keep it under wraps what they are doing, why they are doing it and how they are doing it, then I feel they will take advantage of anybody and everybody,” Brenda said.

In May, Brenda received a call from a person she identifies as Yoder. In the voicemail, which was shared with the Herald Review, the caller acknowledges that more signs had been placed and he hoped to keep their lines of communication open.

Following that call, in June, Brenda received another call from a person she identified as a minister associated with Yoder. In that voicemail, also shared with the Herald Review, the caller said that the sawmill’s construction could not continue in good conscious because its effects on her health. The caller also states they would be willing to sell them the property if they were interested, although the Cranes shouldn’t feel pressured to do so.

It seems as though construction ceased following that call, until the Cranes received a letter on Sept. 1. The letter was a purchase agreement offering the Cranes to purchase the adjacent property for $285,000. It stated the agreement would have to be signed and a good faith payment of $10,000 be made by Sept. 4.

The Cranes did not take the offer and construction continued.

The Cranes now say their main concern is the noise coming from the construction site. At times, the construction can shake their home, keep them up at night and spoke their horses, Brenda said.

Their grandchildren also no longer attend school nearby because they suffer from asthma and bronchitis and the construction has complicated those conditions, she added.

“When did wealth supersede health?” Brenda asked. “I don’t understand that. I really don’t understand why people nowadays feel like they can do whatever they choose to do because ‘the law’ says they can.”

Throughout the ordeal, the Cranes have asked for assistance from the Michigan State Police and the Lake County Sheriff’s Office. However, an officer at the MSP Hart Post said no specific report could be found of an incident involving the Cranes in their statewide database.

Lake County Sheriff Bob Hilts did confirm his department has been called by the Cranes regarding smells, noise and traffic, but there was nothing they could do. The department exists to keep the peace, he said, but Yoder was not violating any zoning ordinances.

“If there was anything we could do to help — either side of that — we would,” Hilts said. “It’s just not criminal what they were doing.”

Having been recognized for her humanitarian efforts for more than 30 years, Brenda said she is typically the type of person that seeks peaceful solutions. However, at this point, she feels the needs to speak up about the injustice she perceives is happening.

“How dare (Yoder) lie and acknowledge what (he has) done,” she said. “(He) said (he was) not going to do it because of my health, then all of a sudden, ‘I talked to the township and the township says I can do whatever I choose to do. If you don’t want me to do it, you pay me “X” amount of dollars and I will go away. If not, I will do it regardless.’”

Shoemaker said Yoder kept pine trees between the properties so the Cranes would not have to directly see the facility. He also asked that a dirt berm be constructed, which Yoder complied with.

Nonetheless, Shoemaker believes Yoder has put too much money into the project, which is legal, to back away from it now.

“The Amish have done everything they could to accommodate the Cranes,” Shoemaker said. “There isn’t anything we can do, but I have at least tried.”

The Cranes have asked the Michigan Department of Civil Rights to look into whether their rights have been violated.