Weddings are off at the Barn of Chapel Hill following another Orange County board ruling that the property owner must meet local zoning rules.
The Board of Adjustment said the 22-acre property on Morrow Mill Road is a farm, but the plan to host up to 250 people in the 4,200-square-foot barn isn’t a farm-related use. County planning staff erred in allowing owner Kara Brewer, with Southeast Property Group LLC, to advance the project, the board said.
The board made its decision based on testimony and the evidence, said Michael Harvey, county planning supervisor.
“I think that the board went out of their way, and even the appellant attorney went out of the way, in saying we just disagree with how this is being done,” he said.
Brewer said she will appeal the decision to Orange County Superior Court. They are finishing construction on the 19th-century barn now and will plant more flowers when the temperature rises, she said. They’ll also add more beehives, care for the young chestnut trees, and hold more educational programs.
Work on the farm’s well and irrigation system also is progressing, despite a March 8 incident when someone dropped rocks into the main line, she said. But the board’s ruling means they may not hold 17 weddings booked for this year, which Brewer said would have supported flower sales and provided more income for the farm.
“I just hope that it doesn’t affect farmers in general,” Brewer said. “I think it’s a good thing to go ahead and incorporate agritourism into your farm ... it’s just a way to diversify, and it’s a smart thing to think about how you’re going to attract visitors and how you’re going to attract business to your farm.”
Their neighbors have fought for nearly two years to stop the $735,000 project, which they feared would bring traffic, lights and noise. Laura Streitfeld, executive director of the advocacy group Preserve Rural Orange, said the case could set a precedent by protecting farms and rural communities statewide.
The board rejected the first application for a “farm event building” in 2015. Brewer resubmitted it as a “barn for agricultural use” to the planning office and was approved after meeting two state requirements for a “bona fide” farm: having a U.S. Department of Agriculture farm number and a forestry management plan.
Neighbors appealed that decision to the board, which agreed. Construction was stopped in October while county staff took another look. Staff again found the property qualified for bona fide farm status, and neighbors appealed that decision to the board.
The Orange County Board of Commissioners has asked the General Assembly to clarify state agritourism rules and make crop and livestock production a primary use, with marketing and agritourism as secondary uses. While similar venues have been rumored, Harvey said no plans have been submitted.
He noted clearer farm and agritourism rules would help local planning officials.
“This is not germane to just Orange County. This is a statewide problem, and this is something that those that enforce land-use regulation will continue to have to deal with,” Harvey said.