Horn’s proposal gives operators some leeway with county regulations
Horse farms across Union County got a bit of a reprieve Wednesday, April 6, as House Bill 329 passed through two votes.
The bill, which would give operators a way around some Union County and state building codes, was adopted almost unanimously, after some amendments were included.
Farms across Union County recently became aware of a bill passed by the state in 2009, House Bill 780, which requires all farm buildings that hold events with at least 10 spectators to follow the commercial code. That includes farms used for horse shows, charity events or any group. Since the bill’s approval, Union County has investigated only one property, Wingate’s Cross Creek Arena, county officials said.
In an unusual twist, the law also doesn’t allow any structure built prior to 2009 to be grandfathered in.
“This act applies to all farm buildings, including farm buildings where construction either began or was completed prior to the effective date of this act,” Section 3 of the document reads.
It’s unclear exactly how state officials expected the law to be enforced, as everything from a family gathering to a horse show could include 10 people or more. In each case, if the facility doesn’t have at least a sprinkler or fire alarm, it would violate the law.
Union County District 68 Rep. Craig Horn, who sponsored HB 329, said he wasn’t able to include everything he wanted, but hoped the bill could provide some relief.
“I couldn’t do what I hoped, which is grandfather in anything in operation before 2009,” Horn said.
“At least with the changes, for someone having a family reunion, he doesn’t have to worry about being shut down.”
Horn’s bill allows for any events with 50 people or less to take place without a special permit, with some restrictions. No event can be longer than 24 hours and no farm can hold more than four events without a permit each year.
Horn also included another exemption where farm events could bypass the state law, if they meet certain requirements. That exemption would require a permit from the fire marshal’s office, which would only come after the fire marshal confirms any unsafe conditions have been resolved and a fire watch established.
Horn said he had included a limit after speaking with the N.C. Department of Insurance, which had raised concerns about using older buildings.
“As a general rule, at the Department of Insurance and Office of State Fire Marshal we are hesitant to support changes in code that have the potential to negatively impact public safety,” Department of Insurance Public Information Director Kerry Hall said. “On this particular bill, we have been working with legislators to come up with a common sense approach to fulfill the sponsor’s good intentions. From my understanding, limiting the number of events to a handful was suggested as a way of, to an extent, limiting risks.”
Horn said even though he supported the farms, he did understand the state’s concerns. After speaking with insurance officials, Horn said, he was told any more than four events would increase the risk to a point that insurance companies would feel forced to raise rates.
“The reality is these are old buildings that are firetraps,” Horn said. “They’ve been used and we’ve dodged a bullet.”
He also said he didn’t see the point of requiring the farms to have water sprinklers, especially since in most cases, the facilities would have no access to water.
County commissioners also endorsed Horn’s bill during their Monday, April 4 meeting. By a unanimous vote, commissioners adopted a resolution informing the General Assembly that they stood in support of House Bill 329.
“It does not solve the problem but it helps,” commissioner Tracy Kuehler, who introduced the resolution, said.
Citations and verbal complaints
The problem for farms in the area, is that even the new bill would mean all property owners would have to upgrade their buildings to meet the commercial code, if they plan to hold commercial events of more than 50 people. The question is what exactly qualifies as an event and when does the county get involved, as they haven’t used the 2009 law to shut down any other facilities besides Cross Creek.
Jay Brown reopened Cross Creek back up at the end of March. He held a youth rodeo March 19 and 20, with 218 kids on Saturday and an estimated 238 kids on Sunday, ages 3 to 19. He followed that up March 26 with a barrel race, also showing horses in four different classes. That event ran from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
As those events were for more than 50 people, Brown wouldn’t be helped by Horn’s bill.