Hosta Fest operator wins zoning fight

Plant sale event can continue within permit guidelines

By Mike Heine/The Week

(Published March 1, 2007, 11:21 a.m.)

Hosta lovers, rejoice. You can now, legally, purchase your hostas from local grower Allen Ritchey.

Ritchey, a gear head with a green thumb-evidenced by the auto repair shop and arboretum on his five-acre plot at W6866 North Walworth Road-had held five popular "Hosta Fests" where gardeners could purchase popular and exotic varieties of the perennial flowering plant.

The county shut down his operation after the 2005 event because Ritchey was running a retail business on property where the zoning code didn't allow it.

A tweak to the C-2 Upland Conservation District zoning code and a conditional use permit will allow Ritchey to hold the event for five days this year, Memorial Day Weekend (Saturday, May 26 through Monday, May 28) and the following Saturday and Sunday, June 2-3.

The county zoning agency approved the change on Feb. 15.

Ritchey says he uses the money from the weekend hosta sales for the upkeep of the arboretum behind his repair shop. He called Hosta Fest a fund-raiser.

"I don't know of any other businesses that could fund themselves for an entire year," on one fund-raiser, Ritchey said.

Ritchey argued his property was an arboretum, which is allowed under the C-2 code.

He spent years in court battling the county trying to show his Hosta Fests should be allowed as a support activity for an arboretum.

His battles included restraining orders, injunctions, zoning violation fines and a trip to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals.

Victory was achieved when the zoning agency amended the code to include "commercial greenhouse" as a conditional use, despite the Walworth Town Board voting against such a change.

Ritchey said his persistence and patience finally paid off and he looks forward to bringing back Hosta Fest and his hosta fans.

"You can take 'No' for an answer, but do some research first," he said. "They want to wear you down and they want to delay and postpone. They want to delay, delay, delay until you die.

"Feb. 3 was four years of legal battles with zoning. It takes a toll."

Despite promising to only hold the fund-raiser five days per year, Ritchey still intends allow people on his property to view the arboretum. He cannot sell any plants other than during Hosta Fest.

The prospect of having the public arboretum on a rural country road will have Ritchey continuing to battle neighbors and the town government.

The town board denied Ritchey's request for the conditional use permit before he applied with the county and neighbors have complained about additional traffic and people parking on the two-lane road.

Neighbor Dave Brach submitted signatures of people opposed to the arboretum operation and Hosta Fest to the County Zoning Agency.

The zoning agency sold out all the neighbors who asked to keep their neighborhood quite and residential, Brach said.

"When a conditional use permit is issued that allows a commercial operation to go forward, whether for a week, or 10 days or three months, it runs contrary to our covenant with the county that this is a residential area," he said.

Brach and other neighbors worry about noise, traffic and dust coming from the arboretum operation.

"I was taken aback by the county board members, despite the petition," Brach said. "There is only one person advantaged by this and many that are disadvantaged by it. To me, I found this to be disheartening that they blew us neighbors off."

Ritchey said he just wants to run his arboretum and once-a-year hosta business within the confines of the conditional use permit, which lists 19 conditions.

Ritchey has to limit parking to spaces on his property and have hours within 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily. The site must also be kept "neat, clean and mowed" and there will be no parking on the road.

Visitors can come to the arboretum year-round, but not purchase any plants.

"We want to put our best foot forward with trying to comply with what the county put in place," Ritchey said.

He found it ironic that the county promotes economic development, the preservation of natural areas and creation of parks, but wanted to shut down his arboretum and hosta selling.

The arboretum maintains green space, gives people a natural place to go and provides Ritchey an economic boost to keep it that way.

"I don't foresee running in the black with my efforts in the arboretum for a long time. I've been working back there for so long," Ritchey said. "What we make at the fund-raiser barely offsets our efforts back there, and that's if I pay myself minimum wage just for doing the maintenance."


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