Corn maze controversy

Neighbor sues Maple Lane Farm owners to stop agri-tourism

In retrospect, Maple Lane Farms owner Bob Schmidt wonders if maybe he should have left the visitors on the ground.

Schmidt is now embroiled in a civil suit filed against him Feb. 7 regarding the two events he has on his farm.

While traffic and noise have been a growing concern with some of the farm’s neighbors throughout the years, it was after Schmidt brought in a helicopter for visitors to fly over the corn maze last year that problems began to surface.

Since 1998 Schmidt has been cutting a maze in his cornfield for visitors to go through, but last year he added a new facet. In 2007, on the advice of a friend, he decided to start selling rides in a helicopter to view the maze from the air.

“I thought that was a great idea and didn’t think far enough ahead that it would create adverse relationships with my neighbors and while that helicopter rides were successful, they weren’t that successful,” Schmidt said. “Hindsight is perfect. We never should have done it. It didn’t work out that successfully. Although it was fun and exciting and a true experience for people that were here, we won’t do helicopter rides anymore.”

Schmidt said he started a pumpkin patch operation on the farm in 1992. To help kick start business that year, he invited neighbors from his subdivision to come pick pumpkins at the farm.

In 1993, he started inviting school groups, and pretty soon parents were bringing their youngsters out on weekends in the fall for pumpkins and strawberries in the spring.

“It took off, and families started coming down,” he said. “People have told us what a family tradition Maple Lane has become.”

In 1998, the Schmidts started their inaugural corn maze.

“It was the first corn maze in the state of Tennessee and the second in the Southeast,” he said. “The whole idea was while people are picking pumpkins, give them an opportunity to share time with family and enjoy the farm atmosphere and be a pumpkin farmer for the day.”

Through the years, Schmidt said his philosophy about his farm changed.

“What we’re really selling is families laughing, taking pictures and enjoying life. That’s what we really sell,” he said. “We use the pumpkins and strawberries and corn maze as a way to get them here. Our real product is family values and quality of life.”

In November of 2007, as the maze was winding down and Schmidt had experimented with the helicopter rides, neighbors complained to the county about the traffic, noise and congestion they were seeing during events at the farm.

Rogers Fields, with Blount County Zoning, ordered Schmidt to stop the helicopter rides and concerts but said in a letter Schmidt could appeal this ruling. Schmidt said he submitted a $50 fee to appeal the ruling. His attorney also spoke with county attorney Rob Goddard, who advised Fields that what Schmidt was doing on the farm constituted “incidental” use, and it would be hard for any zoning regulations to be applied to the situation.

“Roger Fields conveyed that message to me, and I thought it was a done deal. At that point, I told Roger Fields ‘No more helicopter rides,’ and we would do the Strawberry Festival in the spring and cut down shows in the fall to just two weekends,” Schmidt said.

At that point, neighbor Vera J. Shore appealed Fields’ decision back to the BZA.

“The zoning people basically disregarded their own attorney’s advice and did not agree with incidental use of the property and limited me to one concert in a year, period,” Schmidt said. “At that point I said, ‘At least I can do the Strawberry Jam. We’ll still do the corn maze and the pumpkin patch in the fall and we’ll work around it somehow.’”

Schmidt said he was under the impression everything was OK for him to begin planning his Strawberry Festival in May. On Feb. 7, Shore went a step further.

“I thought this thing was over and then, last Thursday, I find out Ms. Shore has gone beyond that and has filed a civil action lawsuit seeking an injunction to shut down the Strawberry Jam and shut down the agri-tourism operations of Maple Lane Farm,” Schmidt said.

In the suit, filed in Blount County Circuit Court against Maple Lane Farm and owners Robert A. “Bob” Schmidt and his father, Al Schmidt, Shore said agricultural operations normally are exempt from zoning regulations. Citing what she said was a 49-day period in the Fall of 2007, when 70,000 visitors came to the farm’s maze, Shore alleges the Schmidts’ activities aren’t agricultural but commercial and are therefore subject to zoning regulations.

“Moreover, as the defendants commercial and tourist activity is not permitted in a zone R-1, the corn maze and concerts should be prohibited,” read the suit.

Shore also referenced the Schmidts’ planned Strawberry jam for May 19 and 20. She asks in the suit that the Schmidts be temporarily enjoined from holding their planned festival or any other activity not permitted by state law or zoning resolutions.

Numerous efforts to reach Shore, 80, and her attorney by Blount Today were unsuccessful.

Shore’s suit said the Schmidt’s agri-tourism acuities constituted a nuisance. Shore requested that the court “declare that the commercial and tourist activities the Schmidts are engaging in at Maple Lane Farms are not agricultural and that the Schmidts be prohibited from conducting a ‘for-profit’ enterprise on the property.”

Schmidt said if he weren’t allowed to pursue agri-tourism, it would hurt his operation.

“In today’s farming environment it will severely hinder the future of this farm. That’s the way it is,” he said. “After two and a half years of drought we’re down to scratching for nickels.”

Schmidt said in 2007, the farm paid $300 a day for diesel to power pumps to irrigate the pumpkin and corn crops.

Schmidt questioned what caused Shore to suddenly decide to fight against his agri-tourism operation.

“This all started in ‘07, 10 years after we had been in operation. My position (is) Ms. Shore bought her house knowing we did a corn maze and pumpkin patch,” he said. “We were here first, and she had knowledge we did this. All of a sudden it’s affecting her life.”

Schmidt said Shore’s concerns about noise at the Strawberry Jam aren’t well founded because the speakers used on stage at the festival point west, and Shore lives in the opposite direction.

“Ms. Shore’s house is a half mile to the east on the other side of a wooded area, and there are houses blocking her house from the sound,” Schmidt said. “The physics of sound don’t work that way. I really doubt she could be adversely affected by the Strawberry Jam.”

Schmidt also contends 99 percent of the traffic to the farm it comes off of Morganton Road and not the road leading to Shore’s subdivision, on the other side of the farm.

“She states we send traffic through her subdivision, but Ms. Shore lives on a cul-de-sac a quarter-mile off the road leading to her cul-de-sac,” he said.

Trash left on the road occurs whether there’s a corn maze or not, Schmidt said.

“I would hope our customers would have enough respect not to throw trash out,” he said. “If you ask any of my neighbors, the trash is no different after the Strawberry Jam and Corn Maze than the day before.”

Schmidt said he doesn’t hear many complaints.

“We have people in direct line of the sound across the street, and they don’t have a problem with it,” he said.

Others, including neighbors Eddie and Doris Johnson, attended the BZA meeting.

Schmidt said he could understand issues the Johnsons might have. “If anybody had right to complain it was Eddie Johnson,” Schmidt said.

Doris Johnson said they’re just trying to see the matter settled peacefully without any problems.

“When he started out it was pumpkins and hayrides for kids. We have no problem with that. It’s gotten bigger and louder with more things added each year. It’s gotten to the point where there is traffic and congestion and noise,” she said.

The Johnsons back bedroom is about 200 feet from the barn where a store is set up during the maze. A swath of corn was planted to apparently act as a barrier, but Eddie Johnson said they still hear the music and noise because their house is taller than the stalks.

Eddie Johnson said he spoke with the Schmidts about the noise during the events.

“It’s a nuisance. You can’t listen to the TV. You can’t hear it,” he said. “I’ve turned it up as loud as it can go.”

The Johnsons, who moved to their home 31 years ago, said they weren’t trying to put their neighbor out of business.

“I’m not trying to shut him down. I want him to make a living. Just do away with the helicopter rides,” Eddie Johnson said. “We don’t have anything against the corn maze.”

The couple said the traffic is bad on evenings when there are activities at the farm. “There were nights we had to sit in line to get to our own house,” Eddie Johnson said.

Doris Johnson voiced concern about the future of the farm’s agri-tourism events.

“I just don’t know where it’s going,” she said. “We’re just trying to see what can be done because it keeps getting louder.”

While the Johnsons said other neighbors were also concerned about the noise and congestion, Marde and Joe Soutullo from the Evergreen subdivision across the street had no complaints about traffic. Their house is situated about 100 yards off Maple Lane.

“We love what this represents. We came from Florida 10 years ago and this is why you come to Tennessee,” Marde Soutullo said.

The couple was at a loss for why Shore filed civil suit against the Schmidts.

“We don’t understand how one individual can cause such an uproar,” Joe Soutullo said.

“We really don’t understand,” Marde Soutullo said. “We would really like for her to explain why. I’ve not met one neighbor who’s against it.”

“It’s an asset to the community,” Joe Soutullo said. “We’re totally behind them.”

Schmidt said he’s never met Shore.

“I never knew who she was and, all of a sudden, we’re her worst enemy and what we seem to do around here irritates her,” Schmidt said, adding that Shore is taking a keen interest in his business affairs. “It just makes you wonder how one person can come into your life and wreak this much havoc.”

Schmidt said that if he loses the lawsuit, it wouldn’t be good for the farm.

“We would really have to make a really serious business decision about the future of this farm. With the farm economy the way it is today, with our costs that are through the roof and commodity prices lagging behind, it gives us no other alternative than for Blount County to lose another one of its farms to a subdivision,” he said.

Even with the challenges, Schmidt said he loves his job.

“I really truly enjoy my job,” he said. “With all the setbacks we’ve had, nobody twists my arm to come to work in the mornings.”

Schmidt said he appreciated the well-wishers and friends who have supported his family since the lawsuit was filed.

“I truly believe after the smoke and mirrors and dog and pony show is loaded up, the truth will come out,” he said. “I look forward to having everyone at the Strawberry Jam and the Corn Maze.”

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