by Anja Wuolu
Alpacas step curiously toward the gate. Is it dinnertime yet? Kayla Ward pulls rubber boots out of her car and changes from her nice shoes. She scoops feed into a bucket for her beloved, wooly pets. At sunset, the farm is a beautiful place. Can it become a sustainable place?
In Collegeville, the Ward family is working to build a multipurpose center for barn weddings, birthday parties and other events. Some of the neighbors are concerned about potential noise. Presently, the renovation is tabled until the township’s attorney can review the plan in late December.
In 2005, Charlie Ward bought a 153-acre piece of land in the Collegeville Township from the Eisenschenk family. Before that, the space was owned by the railroad. Charlie Ward wanted a space to enjoy nature, start a hobby farm and share it with his three children. Siblings Kayla, Dustin and Kelsie Ward cherish the sunsets, the quiet and the historic buildings on the farm. The family raises elk, bees and alpacas. They hold family gatherings. They love to share the farm and hope to turn it into a gathering space that the entire area can enjoy.
No one in the family identifies as primarily a farmer. Kayla is a marriage and family therapist. Dustin is a musician who owns a silk screening and recording studio space. Kelsey has worked as an installation artist, a professor and a nanny. Charlie has worked in retail, rental management and investments.
Yet the farm, with its natural space, animals and history, keeps calling them back. Kayla said she wants to learn more about the history of the land at the Stearns County History Museum. Dustin said he wants wants to uncover some of the original architecture in the farmhouse. Charlie said he hopes to keep the natural space together.
If they were to sell the place, Charlie said he believes the 153-acre farm would likely be divided up into smaller, residential spaces. Collegeville could lose some of its historic identity with farming. Though it may not be financially prudent, the Wards are passionate about stewarding the land.
“It’s difficult at times,” Charlie said, “Everybody around you’s going ‘Why’re you spending your money there?’ It’s like, because it’s cool.”
“A question I get a lot,” Kayla said, “[is] ‘how do you make money doing that?’ I don’t.”
Through sharecropping, the Ward family has earned about $1,800 a year. However, that is barely half of the amount they have to pay toward income taxes. As much as the Wards said they wish to support local agriculture, it’s not possible to afford perpetual loss.
“In order to maintain something,” Charlie said, “it has to do something.”
In 2017, when Dustin began preparation for his own wedding, the family realized their farm would make a great wedding location. The Ward family decided they would open the farm up for public events such as weddings, graduation parties and more. Most of the acreage would remain farm land. They would continue to sharecrop and the animals would stay. The appeal of the wedding venue would be an authentic Stearns County agricultural site.
There was just one problem. None of the Wards yet knew how to turn their barn into a public gathering space. Thus began a many-years process of learning how the law works, finding an architect, waiting for COVID-19 to end and constant troubleshooting.
“There’s lot of oxymorons out there,” Charlie said, “Everybody’s screaming about light pollution, and I’m like ‘please, let’s not have any lights.’ I like the dark when I’m out here, to see the stars, you know. And code demands lights!”
The family plans to renovate using fallen trees, recycled materials and repurposed wood as much as possible. The Wards have diligently asked legal questions and gone through the proper channels to ensure their venue is accessible, legal and environmentally friendly. They are working with Tim Gillet from BCI Construction to make the plan. They hope to begin a $2 million renovation project to turn the existing barn into an idyllic event space.
An open house on Nov. 9 welcomed nearby residents to learn about the property. At the meeting, there were a few people who were concerned about the Ward family’s dream, but most of the guests at the open house expressed excitement about it.
On Nov. 22, the family stood before the Collegeville Township Planning Commission to request a conditional-use permit under the rural tourism ordinance. If granted, the CUP will allow for the family to go forward with the event center. Architect Gillet presented the renovation schematics to a very worried Collegeville public. About 50 people gathered to learn about the CUP. Most of them were opposed and a few were on the fence about the project.
“It’s setting a dangerous precedent,” said Brittany Krebsbach of Kingsdale Circle. “We want things that bring the actual community members together at the level, capacity and volume that is still safe and doesn’t impede on the surrounding uses and wildlife.”
Krebsbach argued the proposed venue was too big, urban and commercial to be considered rural tourism. Pete Daniels of Jasmine Court expressed concern about hitting deer. Christine Becker of County Road 50 asked about the water.
The Ward family had done their homework. They had a traffic analysis conducted that dispelled safety concerns. For each technical question, the family had an answer. The planning commission was pleased. But just because the Ward family is following the law to the letter, does not mean they have won the hearts of their neighbors.
“I believe this is opening Pandora’s box,” Ellen Pelletier said. “You’re talking about something that’s coming into a rural, residential area . . . I think that’s a stretch.”
Pelletier compared the Ward family’s event space to other nearby places like Milk & Honey Ciders. Pelletier argued Milk & Honey was a more acceptable business because it closes at 9 p.m. and holds only one outdoor event per month whereas the Ward family plans to close their space at 1 a.m. and might have any number of outdoor events. Pelletier suggested moving the wedding venue to another location.
“I don’t know that it’s what this community needs,” said Grant Hopke of Held Circle. “If we would’ve known about this in September when we were buying our house, we probably would’ve seriously reconsidered living in this fine township.”
Each time someone spoke against the project, the room filled with applause and agreement. One concern was repeated more than any other: noise and traffic. Almost every member of the public spoke about concern for a sudden influx of outside visitors. In a town known for its quiet, any change is bound to spark concern.
“I’ve seen it with commercial projects and residential adjacencies,” Gillet said later. “When you’re introducing a change or making a difference in that community, it’s always perceived as a negative.”
Near the end of the public meeting, Ken Hanson of County Road 51 shared a more neutral perspective. His property is right next to the Ward family’s, and he has no problem with them. However, he does sympathize with those who do not like change. He then shared a nugget of wisdom gleaned from a lawyer he met in a previous county board meeting:
“The only way you can guarantee the land to stay a certain way is to buy it yourself,” Hanson said.
Per the concerns from the public, the planning committee decided to add several stipulations to the pending CUP. Most notably, there are to be no outdoor events other than photos, ceremony and farm-related activities. If the Wards wish to have special outdoor events, they will have to apply for a separate CUP.
Architect Gillet said he hopes the Wards and their neighbors will be able to make peace with each other.
“My gut says they’re going to work together,” Gillet said, “This sort of anger or fear they have will subside, I think, when Kelsie, Kayla and Dustin actually spend a lot of time with the neighbors.”
“Our intention was not to disrespect people,” Kayla said. “We’re gonna work really hard to work with the township politics and really listen to people.”
The Nov. 22 meeting concluded with an approval of the CUP, pending the approval of the township board of supervisors. On Nov. 29, the supervisors met and decided to table the Ward Family CUP until their lawyer has had a chance to approve it. Their next meeting is at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 27 at the Collegeville Town Hall.