When Kirk and Julie Berggren asked for permission to set up KC Pumpkin Patch and KC Wine Co. in rural Olathe in 2013, it hit a nerve with some of their prospective neighbors.
Worried that the traffic and noise from their operations would ruin their quiet lifestyle and spook their horses, they turned out at county meetings in protest.
The neighbors eventually lost that battle. But they have not gone away quietly. Not by a long shot.
As the popular pumpkin patch opened for the season this week the Berggrens are embroiled in an epic three-year battle with their immediate neighbors to the north, Bob, Shawna and Erin Paulsen. There have been accusations against the Paulsens of stalking, fires deliberately set and of harassment in the form of nuisance calls to the county sheriff’s department.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
The Berggrens asked for and got a protection from stalking order against Erin Paulsen, who they say tried to get her Facebook friends to start a negative review campaign against their business. They also cited Facebook comments that referenced guns, explosives and a proposal to taint their irrigation pond with salt. Temporary restraining orders are also pending against Bob and Shawna Paulsen.
“All I want to do is have my farm,” Kirk Berggren said. The Paulsen family, “needs to know that this needs to stop.”
The Paulsens have their own list of complaints.
Shawna and Bob Paulsen appeared at the Johnson County Commission a week ago, saying the events at the business have blasted music as loud as a pneumatic drill and brought visitors all the way up to their barn to turn their cars around. Their burning has filled their horse barn with smoke, the Paulsens have said. And they’ve felt unduly pressured to restrict weed spraying they say they need.
Erin Paulsen said in a phone conversation that the conflict has been so bad that her mother has gone on anti-anxiety medication. “These people have straight-up ruined our lives,” she said.
The dispute also pits the county, with limited power to restrict activities at the winery, against the state, which is trying to promote more tourism uses of agricultural lands. County officials are considering ways to address conflicts between agri-tourism and neighbors, something Bob Paulsen referenced at the county commission meeting.
“I know you’re having issues with agri-tourism, but if this is the kind of people doing agri-tourism I might call it agri-terrorism,” he said.
The dispute got its start in 2013, when the Berggrens, who ran a pumpkin patch in Gardner, were told their lease wouldn’t be renewed because of rising land values in the area, which is near the new BNSF Intermodal freight facility.
They originally proposed a similar pumpkin patch with a “haunted” maze and winery at land they planned to buy at 13875 S. Gardner Road. However, they eliminated the winery and scaled back some of the hours and activities at the pumpkin patch after the plan was rejected by a county zoning board.
The hearings several years ago at the county commission were packed with neighbors and customers on both sides. Some neighbors filed a protest petition, but the pumpkin patch eventually received approval.
The Berggrens continued to look into the rules for wineries.
What they found was that the permits for that type of business are granted by the state, not the county. So they applied for and got a permit to operate the winery, with rows of grape vines and a Quonset hut for events on the part of their property that shares a fence line with the Paulsens.
At first, Bob Paulsen seemed fine, Kirk Berggren said. The two agreed to split the cost of a new fence between the properties, he said.
But things deteriorated from there, he said.
Berggren’s lawyer, James Brun of Overland Park, provided The Star with an extensive collection of records from various disputes with the Paulsens in following years. Included are screenshots of the Facebook posts and copies of reports from the sheriff’s department deputies who looked into their complaints. Among them:
▪ The Paulsens piled horse manure along the fence line in violation of Kansas Department of Health and Environment rules. The Berggrens said runoff from the piles went in their direction. Copies of the department’s response telling the Paulsens to remove the manure or set them back with an appropriate grass buffer were included.
According to the report from the health department, administrator Victoria O’Brien said, “During our conversation Ms. Paulsen said she wants to pile her manure up at the property line so her neighbor can see and smell it.”
The piles were eventually removed.
▪ A dispute about over-spraying of a weed killer along the fence line. Berggren said the spray killed only a small area near the Paulsen’s side of the fence row, but destroyed the grass as far as 8 feet into their side, in some places, causing $1,200 of damage.
A criminal damage to property charge was filed against Shawna Paulsen in the incident. She was acquitted after a bench trial last spring. Her lawyer at the time, Veronica Dersch, said the judge found no criminal intent.
▪ On May 29, Berggren said the Paulsens sprayed a herbicide on their property that could damage their grapes. The Berggrens have signs warning not to spray such broadleaf herbicides because their drift can be harmful to grapevines.
▪ ▪ The Berggrens claim the Paulsens have harassed them by repeatedly asking the sheriff’s department to check their noise levels and their burning. In one instance, Kirk Berggren said, the fire department had been called about the burning of grape vine trimmings, which were being done legally in a burn barrel. While the fire department was there, he said, Erin Paulsen sprayed at the container with a high-pressure hose, causing embers to jump out onto the surrounding yard. They were stomped out with no damage.
Paulsen said she had tried to put out a fire to keep it from going out of control. She’d also complained that smoke went into her horse barn and was harmful to the horses.
The Berggrens also were concerned when they learned Erin and some of her Facebook friends, in the course of complaining about the businesses, referred to open displays of guns to scare people out of using their driveway as a turnaround.
In other email threads, a commenter suggested bringing some Tannerite for “BOOM BOOM Fridays.” Tannerite is most commonly used to make exploding targets for target practice.
Kirk Berggren and his daughter, Taylor Roesch of Olathe, said those comments and the Paulsen’s repeated noise complaint calls were disquieting. They received a protection against stalking order against Erin a year ago that she did not contest. That order comes up for review again in October.
Kirk Berggren said that although his family was uncomfortable with some of the talk they heard, they let it go at first, thinking it would eventually blow over. “We didn’t worry,” he said. “We thought if we could be good neighbors that we could work it out. We wouldn’t have to be friends, but we could be neighborly,” he said.
But eventually they did apply for the protection order at the urging of sheriff’s department investigator, an assertion supported by a sheriff’s department report.
Erin Paulsen, who trains horses and offers riding lessons, expressed some of her concerns about the Berggrens’ business in some of the same Facebook posts. She worried that city visitors would try to feed the horses or stick their hands through the fence and be bitten.
She also was concerned about higher traffic volumes and noise that could startle horses she is trying to train, and asked her friends to spread the word, according to the posts.
Meanwhile the Paulsens and other neighbors have voiced their frustration, saying they feel the Berggrens gamed the system by going around the county permit process to the state. They filed a letter of complaint to county commissioners and planners saying the county should try harder to get more control over the doings of the pumpkin patch and winery. The email is signed by the Paulsens and 12 other families.
At a recent commission meeting, Shawna Paulsen listed car models and license numbers of driveway trespassers, as well as decibel levels from music at events that sometimes reached 103 decibels — about the noise level of a gas mower or pneumatic drill.
And she said she intends to spray a non-drifting version of a herbicide to maintain a weed free pasture.
She also said none of the vineyard’s previous owners had a problem with her family’s farming practices. But according to the sheriff’s investigation write-up, that isn’t true.
Detective Rebecca Crabtree, with the sheriff’s department, said she checked with Eric Blake, former owner of the Berggren’s land. “Blake said he lost grapes for two years due to Bob Paulsen spraying 2, 4-D herbicide on his wheat field in a careless manner which spread over to his grapes killing them and costing Blake several thousand dollars in damage,” the report said.
Erin Paulsen disputed the idea that her family has been harassing the Berggrens. “They seem to think I’m out to get them, but I don’t really care. I just want them to be quiet and nice,” she said. “They’ve never been neighborly in any fashion.”
Erin Paulsen also said she didn’t want to comment on the Facebook posts because it’s still a matter for the court. Her account is now private and the posts have been blocked, she said.
A lot of the problems could have been avoided if the Berggrens had built their events patio on the south side of the Quonset hut, rather than the side closest to the Paulsen property, she said. They also could have put their burn barrel farther away from the horse barn, she added.
Shawna Paulsen said the dispute has been draining. Winery events are like having a concert three days a week, she said. “Who’s going to compensate us for the thousands of dollars we are spending on attorney fees fighting these lunatics?” she said. “We built our dream and have lived here since October of 1998 in peace and quiet until the Johnson County commissioners allowed these horrible people to do their business events next to us.”
Kirk Berggren scoffs at the noise level Paulsen claimed. A tall wooden fence was built to screen the patio and cut down on the noise, he said. He also provided copies of sheriff’s reports in which deputies were called out but found no excessive noise.
“All we want to do is have our winery and pumpkin patch as a great place for families and kids, where it’s fun to come out and sit and have a meat and cheese tray,” he said.