It’s a farm. But not everything that goes on there is a farm activity.
That’s the conclusion the Orange County Board of Adjustment reached Monday night regarding the Barn of Chapel Hill, aka the Party Barn. The latest installment in a saga that stretches back nearly two years, the three-hour-plus hearing included some eye-rolling, plenty of head-shaking, and actual hissing from the crowd. In the end, BOA members decided that while the property is a bona fide farm─meaning that, under state law, it is exempt from county zoning regulations─weddings and other specials events are not farm-related uses of the property and therefore are subject to zoning laws.
Monday’s hearing dealt with a second appeal by neighbors of the Morrow Mill Road project who say the farm is really a wedding venue that will subject them to loud music, bright lights, and impaired drivers. BOA members have heard about the Barn of Chapel Hill since November 2015, when Kara and Chris Brewer sought a special use permit to open an events center. It was denied on the grounds that an events center would not be in harmony with the rural surroundings. Since then, the issue has bounced back and forth between planning staff, who believe the Barn of Chapel Hill is a farm under state law, and the BOA, which has argued that weddings, not agriculture, were the Brewers’ priority.
The four members agreed Monday that the Brewers’ property possesses three of five items that, under state statute, qualifies it as a bona fide farm exempt from zoning. That exemption allows the Brewers to move forward─despite the special-use-permit denial─with a $735,000 barn that has been booked for seventeen weddings from May to November.
Deciding whether the 250- capacity barn would be used for farm-related purposes, and whether those uses are also exempt from zoning regulations, was trickier. Ultimately, the BOA decided that noneducational events were not exempt from zoning rules. Board member Matt Hughes cast the sole dissenting vote, arguing that as state law is written, special events are related to the farm’s flower operation. His comments were met by tongue-clicking and hissing from Barn of Chapel Hill opponents.
Still, the matter likely isn’t settled. The Brewers could appeal the case in court. The couple has said weddings and other special events will provide income needed to support a farm in an increasingly difficult industry. Making the barn “a little bit nicer” gives it a dual purpose and makes the most of the Brewers’ investment, Chris Brewer said last month. Weddings held there will have to incorporate Barn of Chapel Hill flowers, although other flowers can be used as well.
“We don’t build highways for traffic at two a.m.,” Hughes said Monday. “What I think they were doing is planning for the times that they have a lot of volume, and I think that’s perfectly understandable.”
On Monday, LeAnn Brown, who represented the neighbors, pressed Kara Brewer about what planting had been done on the property, how much of the barn would be used for farm work, and what events are scheduled so far at Barn of Chapel Hill. In rebuttal, the Brewers’ attorney, Andy Petesch, pointed to state law defining agriculture and a definition of agritourism.
Planning supervisor Michael Harvey says that, without seeing the BOA’s ruling in writing, he has “no earthly clue” how the county would enforce it. Should it stand, the Brewers would need a zoning-compliance permit to host weddings. The only way to get it? A special-use permit. The Brewers have waited the requisite one-year period needed to re-apply for a special-use permit, but if they take that route, their new application would have to be different from the first.
Petesch said he couldn’t say how the ruling will affect his clients without first reading the BOA’s formal order. Brown declined to comment on the ongoing case. Under state law, the BOA’s ruling takes effect once it is written and served to interested parties. If the BOA ruling is appealed, the court could issue an injunction against that enforcement.
Laura Streitfeld, director of Preserve Rural Orange, which has carried the torch for Party Barn opposition, calls the ruling “a victory for farm communities throughout North Carolina.”
“This was a case in the Barn of Chapel Hill hearing of a real estate investor claiming an exemption from zoning that was intended to benefit farmers in order to pursue a project that would have a negative impact on the surrounding community,” she says. “The Barn of Chapel Hill project was rejected three times by the Board of Adjustment in Orange County, first because it was incompatible with the surrounding rural, residential community and later, despite the changing narrative, it was proposed as a wedding venue, and later as a farm with the weddings being incidental. However with seventeen weddings booked and no farm events booked to date, the board did not find the use to be agriculture.”