Webber resident seeks damages from township

WEBBER TWP. — When the Michigan Supreme Court refused to hear the case between Webber Township and Webber resident Bruce Austin, Austin thought his legal battle would be over and done; now, he says there is more to go.

For several years, Webber Township has been leveling a case against Austin and his horse rescue business. He had spent years rescuing horses, often at the request of the sheriff’s office, and then raising them. The case stems from Austin’s moving his business, and his residence along with it, into Webber Township. Despite receiving no warning before moving in he was soon told keeping horses on his property violated the township’s zoning ordinance and was a nuisance. Austin defended his right to keep the horses under Michigan’s Right to Farm Act and said it falls under a non-conforming agricultural status.

Austin has won each time the case has gone before a judge but at this final hearing he was not awarded damages beyond his legal fees. Austin said this was not only unjust, but against the Right to Farm Act which he was fighting to uphold.

"They cost me my business and they cost me everything to fight for it," said Austin. "I won every time I went to court and I won my right to farm but now I don't have the money to do it."

Austin said the legal fees for his defense were extensive, and even speculated that Webber Township intentionally tried to keep retrying the case hoping he would run out of money. What cost Austin even more was the loss of his business. With no income due to the case, he had to sell most of his assets.

"Normally, when a farmer wins, he is supposed to get reimbursed. It's written in the Right to Farm Act," explained Austin. "Unless there's a nuisance charge, which I never got, the people after you have to reimburse."

Judge Peter Wadel, who heard the case, said he had no comment at this time.

Austin said he fears the issue has turned personal with certain township officials and he has been singled out due to the drawn out nature of the case. He said he didn't pick this fight, and the struggle has all but ruined him. To stay afloat, Austin intends to continue that fight.

"Now I have to drag this back into court when I just want to be done with it," he said. "I'm not looking to get paid. I went to trial for my right to farm and now I want to do that."