A landowner whose plans for an event center were rejected this fall is trying again to raise a 4,200 square-foot barn on 22 acres in southwestern Orange County.
The Barn of Chapel Hill, if approved, would be a wedding and events center for up to 250 guests in a 19th-century barn near the corner of Morrow Mill and Millikan roads. The barn’s timber frame would be relocated from Marcy, N.Y., and renovated to include space for bathrooms, a loft and veranda.
Two driveways – one off Morrow Mill Road for guests, and the other off Millikan Road for service vehicles, deliveries and emergency access – would serve a 125-space parking lot. The barn could hold weddings and parties, plus weekday conferences for university and corporate groups.
Kara Brewer, who lives in Chatham County, said she had been looking for a flat farm site with good soils for about three years. They found the wooded tract for sale on Morrow Mill Road, bought it in March and took the project to the county in May.
While state law exempts “bona fide” farms from local zoning, Brewer said they were “more than happy” to go through a public process – although it would be voluntary and still leave her with another option for moving forward – to make sure everything was done correctly.
The county’s Board of Adjustment rejected the project in November at a public hearing packed with neighbors.
Brewer could have appealed the decision to Orange County District Court but instead submitted the project early this year for a county staff review. While residents have called county staff with comments, they won’t get an official say in the decision, expected by February.
The Orange County Board of Commissioners briefly raised the issue at their meeting Thursday, after receiving several calls from concerned residents. Commissioners Chairman Earl McKee planned to meet with neighbors to talk about their concerns.
The biggest decision for county staff, building official Dan Bruce said, is whether the event center is the farm’s primary or secondary land use. A bona fide farm’s primary purpose, according to state law, should be producing crops, livestock or other agricultural goods.
The county attorney’s office is researching the legal issues, County Attorney John Roberts said. He declined to elaborate but said the General Assembly amended state law in 2013 to further limit local control over agricultural land. Landowners have five ways to prove they own a bona fide farm.
Brewer meets one requirement – the land already had a U.S. Department of Agriculture farm number – and is working on a forestry management plan, another form of proof. The USDA’s Farm Service Agency doesn’t check to see if farms are being honest, said Tina Miller, county executive director.
Neighbors said they followed the rules but state laws are clouding their community vision. Several county wedding venues are located on active farms and along major roadways, but none appear to have been built on undeveloped, secluded parcels of land.
“That’s one of the biggest concerns is the change to what folks invested in, what they preserved, and what I’d say genuine farmers sacrificed for generations to keep it agricultural, to keep it truly in farm use and pass it along to their kids and grandkids,” neighbor Laura Streitfeld said.
The project site used to belong to the Pickards, one of four local, century-farm families. It hasn’t been actively farmed for at least 50 years, cattle farmer Warren Ray said. He and his wife Billie Ray live about a mile away; he regularly drives his tractor down Millikan Road to work in the fields.
They worry that a property owner who doesn’t plan to live on the land won’t be concerned about the extra cars, lights and noise coming into the secluded community, Ray said. An acoustical expert testified in the fall that current noise levels are quieter than a typical air-conditioning system.
More traffic could make it dangerous for young children who regularly play outside, they said, or Ray to keep driving his tractor on the road. They also worry some guests might decide to drive after drinking, and that the events center could exacerbate existing water issues.
Stormwater already runs downhill from the site and pools in neighboring yards, they said. It also can be a struggle to get enough water pressure from existing wells, especially during drought, Streitfeld said. Documents show the center could use up to 750 gallons a day for a 250-person event.
The difference seems to be in how the land is valued, Ray said. Neighbors think that’s having a good place to raise food and families, he said.
“I can’t consider it a farm. There’s nothing farm about it, even if that’s what they’re going to call it,” Ray said. “They’re going to have weddings, parties, whatever, and they’re charging people to come use their building for that. My barn is for my cattle, my hay, my equipment.”
She also sees the land as a place where her young children can grow up, learning about farms, gardening and business, Brewer said. There are many ways to address neighbors’ concerns, keep the lines of communication open and grow her dream, she said.
Fireworks won’t be allowed and outdoor music won’t be amplified, Brewer said. Events would end by 11 p.m., and they are looking at shuttle service to transport guests between the site and their homes or hotel rooms, she said. Sound checks and closed doors could control indoor noise.
Licensed and insured caterers and bartenders would be hired to serve guests, she said. While the farm is still in the planning stages, Brewer said she expects planting to start this spring. They could produce flowers, honey and, in five to 10 years, an orchard of chestnut trees, she said.
“What I want to do with the weddings is create my own market for flowers,” she said. “I want the brides to come in, be able to use the flowers – we will have an in-house florist – or they can pick their own. Also, we’re hoping at some point to be able to get into the flowers market.”