Farm still holding events, seeking answers
Two months later, Jay Brown still doesn’t understand why his business violates the building code. In his view, the owner of Cross Creek Arena, 1916 McIntyre Road, followed the rules when he built a facility on his farm property able to hold events such as rodeos. The Wingate resident was given a notice by the county to shut down his operation in January for not following the state’s 2009 commercial building code amendments. Brown questions why Cross Creek, which opened in 2007, has to follow a law approved two years later.
“I have yet to see someone come out here and ask what the (building’s) panels are made of, if the crowd is safe during an event,” Brown said. “You can’t take a certain type of building and lump it together. They told me we’ve got to follow the same building code as Bobcats Arena or Bojangles Coliseum. How’s that fair?”
County officials say by ordering Brown to follow the commercial code, they’re just going along with North Carolina law, specifically House Bill 780, which was signed by the governor in 2009. The law requires all farm buildings that hold events with at least 10 spectators to follow the commercial code. That means a sprinkler system has to be installed, as well as fire alarms and some events must have a special use permit. The law also doesn’t allow any structure built prior to 2009 to be grandfathered in.
“The legislature exempted all farm use buildings used for equine activities from the requirements of the building codes, as long as these activities were not spectator events with more than 10 members of the public,” Union County Inspections Director John Reavis said. “In the case of a spectator event where more than 10 members of the public are present, the building must meet the requirements of the North Carolina building code.”
The problem for Brown, as well as other farms in the area, is that means all property owners would have to upgrade their buildings to meet the commercial code, if they plan to hold events. 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 in the area.
Reavis cited North Carolina General Statute 153A-364, the section dealing with “periodic inspections for hazardous or unlawful conditions” as to when the county would get involved. That statute, Reavis said, gives the Fire Marshal’s Office the authority to conduct inspections.
“The inspection department must have probable cause to enter onto a citizen’s property and can only do so with the owner’s permission or after obtaining a warrant,” Reavis said. “We can and do use the public right of way to check on conditions where possible.”
That probable cause, Reavis explained, comes from complaints filed with the office. Most complaints start as a phone call, with the department explaining they need some cause to enter onto a piece of property. The department then asks for something in writing, to document the issue.
The issue with Cross Creek however is the fact there was no written complaint. Fire Marshal Speer came out to the property the first week of January, saying the county had received a complaint that crowds coming to shows on the property had exceeded the legal limit. When Union County Weekly requested a copy of the complaint in February, Speer said the complaint was verbal. He then referred UCW to the county’s public information officer, Brett Vines and the legal team. The county still won’t reveal the name of the complainant or what they alleged.
Once that phone call’s received, even if there’s nothing written, the county will still follow up on the case, Reavis said.
“The Inspections Department will make a note of the location and send an inspector to ride by the property in an effort to determine probable cause regardless of whether or not we receive anything in writing,” Reavis said.
In the case of Cross Creek, the situation came as a surprise, as Brown had been operating without any citations for three years. Reavis said the county didn’t send out any information, informing property owners of the change, because it wasn’t their responsibility.
“The county is not responsible for advising the population of changes to state law,” Reavis said.
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. The 30,000 sq. ft. Cross Creek Arena plays host each year to multiple events, ranging from rodeos to visits from special needs groups.
Moving forward with events
Not wanting to lose his business while he looked for solutions, Brown opened Cross Creek 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.
“I’m not just gonna lay down and take it,” Brown said. “I had a friend of mine call up and ask if he could hold his event, I said well sure, if you’re willing to go to jail with me.”
Brown said he would continue to hold events, because he refused to just allow someone to walk up and close down a business he spent four years trying to build.
The problem for Brown is not just cost, but the practicality of the requests. Union County Fire Marshal Neal Speer detailed the issues in a Jan. 6 letter, citing a need for a sprinkler, a firm alarm and other items.
The McIntyre Road property is 2 ½ miles from where county water reaches, so it would be impossible for Brown to link up and install a sprinkler system that way. He studied pumping the water from the pond on his property, but couldn’t get the hydraulics to pump enough water to the arena to satisfy the requirement.
“They’re gonna run over people’s rights,” Brown said. “If the people are willing to come in, I’m going to welcome them.”
The state law causing the problem could soon be amended. N.C. House Rep. Craig Horn has introduced a bill that would give farm facilities an exemption in this case.
“I have introduced HB329, that deals with the unintended consequences of (the previous bill), which has created a potential and serious problem for owners of equine facilities throughout the state,” Horn said. “Union County has a large number of equine facilities and my bill, which has received a favorable recommendation from the Agriculture Committee, will correct the problem.”