HOWELL – A Superior Court judge has been asked to decide a land use dispute brought by township officials against a private membership association (“PMA”) and a local farm.
The Sprouts PMA began leasing land owned by Stanley (who goes by his middle name, Daniel) and Tasia Domin at 505 Newtons Corner Road a couple of years ago. Sprouts is one of four farms onsite, including Birds Farm, LLC, owned and operated by the Domin couple.
Almost all of the Sprouts 40 family members homeschool and joined the PMA for the opportunities it provides as enhancement exercises. Children enjoy their time socializing with others while developing a connection to the land as they gain firsthand knowledge about agriculture.
The parents of three little ones, Daniel and Tasia also became personally involved with Sprouts as members. Their four-year-old twins and six-year-old participate in many of the group’s activities. The oldest Domin child attends classes at the local public school.
“We started the PMA in an effort to have our kids experience normal life in nature with growing food and being around farm animals,” shared Kimberly Houli. “We rented from Liberty Haven Farm (also in Howell) before we came here.”
Houli and Leanne Coffey are the two Sprout parents named in the lawsuit filed on behalf of Howell Township by Attorney Christopher Dasti of the Dasti & Associates law firm. Both moms submit working the land is a valuable experience for children. Houli and Coffey object to any suggestions that Sprouts operates as either a school or camp. Academic lessons are left to home instruction for those who homeschool.
Sprouts sits in the rear of the divided farmland, fenced off with a sign marked private property. Two big pigs waddle back and forth through their pen, separated from a well-populated chicken coop and another area giving some goats an elevated space of their own.
Part of the land has been set aside for planting, while another section serves as a compost area. A few prefabricated sheds are scattered throughout the property. A placard on the outside of one of the structures lists farm “Snaps” and uses clothespins labeled with children’s first names to rotate tasks.
Pastel rainbows painted on old tree trunks only add to the pleasant environment, one that Sprouts members have been accused of using illegally.
Houli easily remembers the day last September when the controversy that turned into a lawsuit began. She and half a dozen other moms were on the Sprouts property with a group of approximately 15 children when a township code official showed up and introduced himself.
“I was scared,” Houli admitted. “I didn’t realize at the time they weren’t technically allowed on the property (the overall farm), but I knew they weren’t allowed on our leased property, so I didn’t let them in past our fence.”
According to court documents, Howell Code Enforcement Official John Aguiar made an unannounced visit to the Sprouts farm on September 14, 2022. One claim is that Aguiar was inspecting a neighboring property when he decided to see why the children were on the farm during a regular school day.
Anther contention is that the Township received multiple complaints that Sprouts was illegally operating as a school or a day camp. The area is not zoned for either and the PMA does not have the licenses necessary to run those type of businesses. Houli and Coffey said their participation in a private membership association doesn’t meet the definition of either a school or day camp,
“I was at work and saw what was happening on our cameras,” shared Daniel. “I called the Township and asked why their guys were on the property, and they didn’t really say why they were there. I then told them we were calling the police to report trespassing and they (code enforcement) left right away.”
Aguiar took photographs from outside the fence while he was visiting the property. Attorney Dana Wefer has been retained by all of the named defendants and submitted legal documents that the visit constituted an invasion of privacy and presented an argument that government authorities conducted a search in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
Five days later, Aguiar issued a Notice of Violation to the Domins that identified permit issues for structures erected on the site without prior approval, as well as some other problems that have since been resolved.
The Code Official’s letter further stated that it was “observed and confirmed that a school/day camp doing business as “Sprouts Nature Project” was operating from the property without any approvals.
“All activities associated with Sprouts Nature Project must cease and desist immediately on the farm, in any unapproved structure,” continued Aguiar. “Or in any home located on the property.”
The Township points to the Lease Agreement entered into between the parties as one of its proofs that the land is being used as either a school or day camp. The since-canceled agreement stated the purpose of the lease was to “facilitate a private learning environment for all ages, operating as a private membership association (PMA) which includes, but is not limited to, gardening, caretaking of our farm animals, cooking, wilderness skills, hiking, exchange of good among members, and formal academic studies; Sprouts PMA will also use this site to occasionally host member only gatherings.”
“They were advertising online that it was an eight week school session for $270, where they teach,” Dasti said. “It’s not just agricultural; it’s science, it’s writing.”
The Sprouts Nature Project Facebook page no longer contains the references referred to by Dasti, although screenshots are part of the legal exhibits. Houli and Coffey submit that any money collected by the PMA goes towards the lease and the cost of maintaining the farm and feeding the animals.
“We’ve asked them to enter into a consent order that says they will agree to comply with what the land use says they are allowed to do,” continued Dasti. “They don’t want to do that, which is their right. They’re free to go to the zoning board and ask for the way they want to use the property.”
After reading the legal filings against them, Houli and Coffey took particular exception to language that said what they were doing was “endangering the welfare of the children.” They view their participation in Sprouts as having just the opposite effect.
According to Coffey, she and Houli are constantly at the farm to tend to the animals. However, that’s not to say children are always on site.
“On average, I’d say the children spend two and half hours here a week,” said Coffey. “We homeschool. We’re not schooling on a farm and aren’t set up or have the right academics there. They’re saying we are using one of the sheds as a classroom, and we’re not.”
Wefer sees the legal issues presented on behalf of the Township officials from a different vantage point. Her legal brief states that the Township is “strictly seeking an order barring Sprouts from gathering on the farm.” The defendant’s attorney contends this would violate the constitution because Sprouts members are engaged in protected freedom of association.
In listing the various activities the children participate in on the farm, Wefer also pointed out that all activities are led by parents who are members of Sprouts. The attorney also specifically wrote that Sprouts is not a business, school, or a camp.
“Sprouts is a private association of families, a community, who have come together to farm, appreciate nature, and pass those skills and values on to their children,” summarized Wefer.
Monmouth County Superior Court Judge Lourdes Lucas has scheduled a hearing for January 26, 2023 to hear the case after allowing the attorneys to submit additional briefs.