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Farmer's request to halt development is rejected
By John Agar
The Grand Rapids Press
04/04/2002

HOLLAND TWP. -- After losing a court fight Wednesday to halt a major development near his blueberry fields, Kenneth Smith was uncertain what the future held -- both legally and agriculturally.

Smith, owner of Wooden Shoe Blueberry Farm on Beeline Avenue, sought a temporary restraining order to stop a major commercial development project that includes a Target store. He said that the project would drain groundwater from his farm and threaten his crops.

But a judge said Smith failed to show that the project would cause irreparable harm to his farm and denied the request.

"We're going to re-evaluate, in terms of what the damages are going to be," said his attorney, R. John Wilcox.

He could appeal Ottawa County Circuit Judge Edward Post's ruling, too. But Smith said he has to grow a lot of blueberries to challenge developers and retailers with millions on the line.

"I'm sure they can outspend me 20 to 1," Smith said.

Geenen DeKock Properties is constructing a 125,000-square-foot project that includes a Target store and other major retailers on 95 acres along U.S. 31 north of Riley Street. Smith's farm is northeast of the development.

The developers have to drain a shallow water table to move heavy equipment across wetlands, which Smith says will drain water from his blueberry fields. Blueberry plants have shallow roots and thrive in a higher water table.

But attorneys Jon Bylsma and Nyal Deems, representing Geenen DeKock, said there is no evidence that temporarily draining water on the building site would have an adverse impact on Smith's farm.

They noted that the state Department of Environmental Quality has approved the project, which includes building new wetlands.

"This is a huge aquifer," Deems said. "It's all speculation on how much it will affect it."

Bylsma said that damage is "something nobody wants to occur, and we don't think it's going to happen. We're not trying to harm his farm."

Witnesses in the hearing included a hydrologist who said the construction project could have a lasting impact on the water table on Smith's farm, and a Michigan State University horticulturist who specializes in blueberries.

Eric Hanson, the MSU professor, said blueberries thrive in areas where the water table is very shallow. The water table on Smith's property is about a foot below the surface.

He said Smith could irrigate to make up for water loss, but said that poses added costs in electricity to run pumps, along with herbicides, fertilizers and insecticides that could be washed away by watering.

He noted that if the water returns near its current level once construction is done, the blueberries will have adequate water.

Defense attorneys said that a slight lowering of the water table would fit an ideal range for blueberries.

The judge said testimony showed that the water table should not have a long-term drop.

"I am concerned in this case about the lack of empirical data," Post said. "The plaintiff failed to prove the damage was irreparable. There's no evidence to prove plaintiff's property will be of less value today by virtue of the de-watering."

He said Smith could have economic loss if his plants produce fewer blueberries the first year or so, but that wasn't enough to halt the project.


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