Racetrack zoning issue revs up

This track just east of Lansing has been at the center of a noise complaint that violates a Lansing Township ordinance. - Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Judge Fred Wellmann will decide at the end of the month whether to allow an Austin couple to continue operating a private dirt racetrack they built in Lansing Township six years ago.

Jay and Shelly Kohnke, racetrack owners, are in the midst of a lawsuit with Lansing Township regarding the zoning of their racetrack. The Lansing Township Board contends that the Kohnkes need a conditional use permit to operate a racetrack on their property. The Kohnkes disagree.

The Kohnkes’ land, at 27637 550th Ave. in Lansing Township, is zoned as an agricultural district. According to the ordinance in question, agricultural districts exist “to preserve and promote the use of land for agricultural purposes and rural residential use ….” Racetracks are listed as one of the “conditional uses” of an agricultural zone.

“The Kohnkes do not believe they need a conditional use permit for their son to practice his motocross on their own private land,” said their attorney, Dan Donnelly. “This ordinance either doesn’t or shouldn’t apply to them. It was designed for a large commercial track, and not meant to impede a landowners’ use of their own private land.”

The dispute began in April 2010, when the township notified the Kohnkes that they would need to obtain a conditional use permit to continue using their land as a racetrack. Neighbors had complained about the noise.

In a letter to the township board, Gus and Ann Maxfield, neighbors of the Kohnkes’ property, explained their frustration with living near the motocross track.

“This one happens to be only 300 ft from our house and the noise levels are such that you cannot carry on a normal conversation inside our home while they are running,” the Maxfields’ letter says. “If Lansing Township’s ordinance cannot be enforced it is not worth the paper it is written on.”

“While this may sound like ours and our neighbor’s [sic] problem please consider the precedence you are setting here and also imagine what it would be like to have a motocross track in your backyard,” the Maxfields’ letter continued.

Bob Alsop, attorney for Lansing Township, said the ordinance makes clear that the Kohnkes need a conditional use permit to operate a racetrack on their land.

“The township’s position is clearly that their use does require a conditional use permit based on the plain wording of the ordinance,” Alsop said.

Donnelly, representing the Kohnkes, said the intent of the ordinance may have been to regulate the Chateau Raceway located in Lansing. Donnelly also said this case could be a slippery slope if Wellmann rules in favor of the township board.

“It becomes a slippery slope for anyone operating a motorized vehicle on any path in Lansing Township,” Donnelly said. “There are other people who practice and who drive what would be motocross bikes or ATVs on their own private property out in Lansing Township and there’s no attempt here to regulate their use.”

Judge Fred Wellmann will preside over the trial, which is scheduled for Sept. 30. He will determine whether the ordinance applies to the Kohnkes and, if it does, whether they’re violating it.

Shelly Kohnke said she is ready to appeal the decision if Wellmann rules in favor of the township.

“We just don’t think we’re doing anything wrong. We think it’s our right to do what we want to do on our property; we’re not doing anything illegal,” she said. “We will take this to appeals court. We’re willing to put everything we have in this.”

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