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Farm owners dont wish to continue disputes with church
Variance requested on property that has been subject of years of litigation
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An old wound was opened Wednesday when the Hall County Planning Commission heard a zoning request from a Gillsville church.

Lebanon United Methodist Church asked for a setback variance from 25 feet to 10 feet on the property line with Peckerwood Farms. The church and the farm’s owner had a bitter land dispute less than three years ago.

On Wednesday, the East Hall church asked for the variance to build an addition to its church hall building, which could not be constructed elsewhere on the property because of existing septic field lines, a cemetery and other church buildings, said Terry Gillespie, chairman of the church’s building committee.

Beth Buffington Weikel, a partner in Peckerwood Farms, said though she is not opposed to the expansion, she was concerned with the effects construction could have on her agricultural land.

"I’m here tonight to carry on the torch of my dad, Sonny Buffington, and hopefully in a positive way. We want to try to utilize this to go forward in the future without any conflicts to this property," Weikel said.

She asked the commission to include conditions with the church’s request that they would repair any damages they might cause to the nearby fence along the property line immediately because cows graze on the land.

She also asked that a silt fence be erected to prevent erosion into a pond on her property.

Weikel’s sister and business partner, Ginger Folger, addressed the planning commission about her family’s past struggles with the church.

She said though she feels there are other options without building so close to her property, she doesn’t want to have a public struggle like her late father.

"There are other ways for them to build, but am I willing to go through years of litigation with them and have them drag us through the media mud as they drug our father? I’m not sure about that," Folger said. "Once we say ‘no,’ are we the next villains?"

According to The Times archives, Buffington, who owned the 2,000-acre farm, bought the land adjacent to the church in the 1980s.

In June 2001, Buffington installed a barbed wire fence along the road and metal guard rails across the back driveway to Lebanon United Methodist Church. The fence blocked a parking area for camp meetings. The rails barred vehicle access to the fellowship hall and the barbecue pit behind the church.

Buffington paved the driveway for the church in the mid-1990s. The fence already existed. Buffington just moved it closer to the road and eliminated parking on what he said was his property.

The church sued.

In September 2002, a judge ordered Buffington to clear the driveway obstruction and pay $7,500 in court costs. He ruled the church may continue to use the rear driveway, which it had done for some 40 years.

In June 2002, the Lebanon Methodist Campground trustees also filed suit. They said the church owns the six-tenths of an acre as part of property deeded to the campground in 1847. Buffington said he bought it as part of a larger parcel from the J.L. Langford estate in 1986.

The two parties were in and out of court through 2006.

Gillespie said he hopes the church will be able to expand while keeping a peaceful relationship with Peckerwood Farms.

"We don’t want to infringe on the Buffingtons," Gillespie said.

The planning commission approved the variance request 4-0, with conditions regarding the fence and erosion control.