Burton Hoey vs. Everyone
"We're at the breaking point."
by James Leonard
It's a beautiful fall day at Jenny's Farm Market on the corner of Island Lake and Dexter-Pinckney roads, with sunlight shining on the straw maze outside and streaming through the jars of pickles and preserves inside.
But for Burton Hoey, Jenny's proprietor, it's just another dark day.
"We're down 70 percent from last year," says the market's gruff and grizzled sixty-seven-year-old owner. "Mostly it's the weather--it's rained so much since August--but it's also the township and the bad press and this animal thing."
The township is Webster, which has sued Jenny's three times, most recently in October over its straw maze. The animal thing is the Humane Society of Huron Valley, which, after fielding complaints about Jenny's for years, seized two horses, four donkeys, and two goats in October. And in Hoey's opinion, the bad press is virtually all the coverage he's ever gotten.
Hoey says he doesn't know why the Humane Society took only some of his animals. "They're all in the same pens eating the same food. If they took any, they should have took them all, right?" He admits that "the ones they took had issues," but asserts "we were taking care of them."
And he says he doesn't get why Webster's suing him. "Every community in the world would be happy to have us. We're probably the biggest retailer in Webster, so you'd think they'd be happy to have us.
"We're at the breaking point. We'll be here next year, but we're going to have to sell animals, all but three horses and three donkeys. And who knows what'll happen after that?"
The Hoey family came to Dexter early. Records in the Dexter Museum show that Irish-born Patrick Hoey was married at St. Joseph Catholic Church in 1856. That was just twenty-six years after the village was established. And they flourished. Burton's grandfather, Daniel, co-founded the D.E. Hoey Lumber Co. in 1898. Dan Hoey Road is named for him. Burton's father, Leo, ran the company with his brother John
until 1950, when John became vice president of the Dexter Savings Bank.
After Leo died in 1969, Frances Hoey, Burton's mother, then sixty-five, took over the company. It was unusual for a woman to run a lumber business--previously, she had been a teacher and then a full-time mother of seven--but in a 1979 Ann Arbor News interview, she shrugged off the accomplishment, saying it was no big deal. She died almost five years ago, at 103.
Leo and Frances Hoey raised their large family in one of the loveliest homes in Dexter: an eleven-room, Greek-revival-style mansion built in 1834 on the hill above the market (see sidebar). Burton helped run the lumberyard, which was later sold, worked as a builder, and farmed the family's land. His first wife, Darlene, the mother of their daughter, Jennifer Ann, died at a young age, and a second marriage ended in a drawn-out divorce.
A Community Observer article about Jenny's five years ago focused on complaints about the treatment of animals but also noted that Hoey had been sued more than 125 times. Among others, the article noted, he had been sued for unpaid debts "by lumber yards, by well drillers, by several banks, and for stealing gas at a rental property he owned."
In an irate phone call to the Observer's editor after that article came out, Hoey blamed his financial problems on his divorce: "The divorce took eight years," he said. "They froze my assets for eight years. I couldn't pay my bills."
Hoey remembers starting the market in the early eighties as a roadside stand for the family farm's produce. He says his daughter Jenny took it over in the early 1990s to help pay for her schooling at Western Michigan University. "She married someone from over there and stayed there," Hoey explains. "She has two kids. She doesn't work. She's a good woman."
Jenny still owns the property that the market sits on. According to Hoey's attorney, John Bredell, she also
remains an owner of the market, though Burton has run it since she left. Since taking over, he's expanded it to include a petting zoo plus pony rides and hayrides, and in the fall pumpkins, doughnuts, and a straw maze.
The township's lawsuit over that straw maze is only the latest of many--a framed 1994 Ann Arbor News article on the market's wall recalls Webster's earlier suits against Jenny's. The most recent round started in 2008, when the township sued Jenny's for excess signage--by its count, he had seventeen. Hoey argued that current zoning ordinances don't apply to Jenny's since it was there before they were passed. Representing himself, Hoey won the case. Webster appealed and lost again.
John Kingsley, Webster Township's supervisor, says the courts found for Hoey because "Burton perjured himself. He said it was prior to our zoning ordinance being written that all the signs went up, and the fact is it was illegal under previous ordinances too."
Hoey turned around and sued Webster this April over its refusal to grant him a permit to install a bathroom required by the state. "They say I've got no site plans," says Hoey. "But I've got four sets of site plans in. Besides, we're not adding to the footprint of the building."
"He's never submitted a true site plan," counters Kingsley. "It's a commercial property, and it doesn't meet zoning. It doesn't meet setback requirements. We have restrictions on how many parking places a place of his size has to have, and he doesn't provide those. He doesn't have a driveway permit for where he has a driveway. But that's him: he does it Burton's way. And what can we do but take him to court? We can't arrest him for a zoning violation."
The township went to court again in October. "We asked Judge Connors for an emergency injunction to have the straw maze removed," explains Kingsley. Though Jenny's has had a free straw maze for eighteen years, the supervisor says, "we went after it this year because it's so much higher, seven or eight bales high, where it used to be three or four."
"Webster Township has their attorney in [court] saying how bad this place is," Hoey remembers, "and the judge says he can't base his decision just on their say-so. So the judge comes out here and looks at it, and he told them they need to take it to mediation.
"If they're smart, they'll give up," Hoey continues. "They bothered my daughter twenty years ago, and now they're bothering me. And what are they accomplishing? Nothing! I've made more people smile than they have!"
Bredell, Hoey's attorney, predicts that both the bathroom and straw maze issues should be resolved by next spring. And since Jenny's is a seasonal business that shuts down most operations after Halloween, that suits Hoey just fine.
It's unlikely to appease the township. Asked if Jenny's is a public nuisance, Kingsley replies, "Only certain aspects. It could be a great business, but right now it's the most egregious business we have. Having people parking on the road surface, putting signs out into the county road right-of-way--these things can't go on. But we're not trying to put him out of business. We're just trying to get him to abide by the same rules as everyone else."
The Humane Society of Huron Valley wants the same thing. It's been receiving complaints about Hoey's treatment of his animals for many years. "We're quite familiar with Mr. Hoey," says Matt Schaecher, its director of animal cruelty investigation and rescue. "He's been a regular stop for us for some time."
Five years ago, HSHV director Tanya Hilgendorf told the Observer the group didn't like the way Hoey cared for his animals but her investigators found "nothing prosecutable." What changed this spring? "We hold solid evidence strong enough to pursue cruelty charges," Schaecher says. While he says he "can't get into the details of what we found," he would say that "some animals were underweight," while others have "overgrown hoofs."
"One horse had the heaves, that's 'cause of old age, and one had a small nick on one leg that was healing up. The goats we purchased two months ago and were fattening them up," Hoey responds. "And those four donkeys a guy gave me a year ago, and you should have seen their hooves then. We've been trimming them back ever since. You've got to do it slow, or it hurts them. If they were farmers, they'd know that."
Schaecher says the animals are currently being "boarded at an off-site, undisclosed location," and that what happens next "the courts will decide. If he's found guilty, we ask that they be turned over to the humane society. If he's found not guilty, he could be awarded back the animals, but I don't foresee that happening. The court process could take months, but he's still got a yard full of animals, I don't think it will put him back."
Though Hoey's been in and out of legal trouble for years, his biggest legal problem and the thing that'll likely sink him--if anything will--was an accident last year that left Mary Armbruster, then twenty-three, paralyzed from the waist down.
Armbruster started working at Jenny's September 3, 2011, says Don Ferris, Armbruster's attorney. "Her job was to drive the hayrides and work around the farm." Just three weeks later, on September 24, "she got pulled off the wagon by the horses because of unsafe equipment and an unsafe route. The reins were not even, and the seat was not bolted down, and when the horses went down the steep hill, the seat came off, and Mary stood up to try to keep control of the horses, got pulled forward, and was then run over by the wagon," breaking her spine.
A year later, after numerous surgeries and continuing physical rehabilitation, Armbruster is still paralyzed and likely to remain that way. Ferris says his client is looking for "compensation for her injuries, and that'll amount to whatever the jury says it is."
With a court date coming in February, Ferris says he's "looking for a jury trial," though he notes that "90 percent of all lawsuits are settled. It depends on how much money is offered."
Though Hoey is uncharacteristically but understandably closed-mouthed about Armbruster, he will say that "there's going to be a big settlement soon. I don't want to go to trial. Trials are risky."
John Bredell, Hoey's attorney, agrees and hopes insurance will take care of Armbruster before the trial starts. "Mr. Hoey had workers' compensation and liability insurance," he says, "and workers' comp said she's not entitled because she was a farmworker, and liability says she's not entitled because of exclusionary policies. We've filed a lawsuit in federal court against workers' comp, and thankfully liability has covered [Hoey's] expense so far."
What if the insurance doesn't cover him and Hoey loses in court? "He'll go bankrupt," replies Bredell. "His daughter owns the land, and the only real asset is the land. Jenny's market doesn't have any assets, and Mr. Hoey doesn't have any money. When his mother died, there were several heirs, and, as frequently happens in that case, they sold the property. It's my understanding that he'd already drawn on his inheritance and didn't get a chunk of money that Armbruster could take."
The court could award her the market and the land it sits on anyway, bankrupting Hoey and severing the family's last link to its farming past. "Part of his conflict is over the question: where does the farm end and town begin?" says Bredell. "And the answer is: it's a farm, not a downtown."
But it's a farm only a block away from one of the fastest-growing municipalities in the state--Dexter's population increased from 1,500 to 4,000 between 1990 and 2000--and instead of fields, Jenny's is now surrounded by new subdivisions. And suburbanites and their governments take a decidedly different view of Jenny's Farm Market than the gruff and grizzled ex-farmer who's eking out a living at the tail end of his family's fortunes.
[Originally published in December, 2012.]