State law could help re-open Cross Creek Arena
Cross Creek Arena could open its doors again without any permits from Union County. A bill that became law in this year’s session of the General Assembly, HB168, specifically says what it takes to be considered a working or “bonafide” farm. Such farms are exempt from county zoning ordinances, according to zoning expert Richard Ducker with the North Carolina School of Government.
“A ‘bonafide farm’ is generally exempt from county zoning and certain aspects of building code enforcement,” Ducker wrote in an Aug. 17 letter. Horse farms qualify for the exemption, Ducker wrote. He stated that “an agricultural activity pursued purely for pleasure, like raising horses, rather than for profit would still qualify and so too would related incidental activities.”
In order to classify as a farm, a property owner has to show one of five things; a farm sales tax exemption certificate issued by the Department of Revenue, a copy of the property tax listing, a copy of the farm owner’s most recent federal income tax return, a forest management plan or a Farm Identification Number issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Union County Weekly viewed Brown’s sales tax exemption, listing his property as being in the farm program.
“I don’t understand why the county thought I was under their zoning in January, but now I’m being told I’m not,” Brown said. “I’m a farm, I’ve always been a farm since I bought this place in 2007. The county had to sign off on the building permits.”
The exemption from county zoning would seem to lift the argument against Cross Creek. In January, the county ordered the arena shut down for not following North Carolina’s commercial building code, with property owner Jay Brown receiving letters highlighting multiple violations including the lack of a sprinkler system. The issue seemingly had come about due to a change in state law, where horse farms, previously exempt from commercial rules, were now being forced to follow stricter safety measures for any structure that held events. However Union County Weekly found that Cross Creek was the only horse farm in the entire county that had been ordered to shut down, to comply with the law. Other facilities continued to hold rodeos and horse related events, such as The Ark in Monroe, which held events in July, August and has a national level event scheduled for Oct. 8, one they’ve put on for the past eight years.
“Our Zoning Administrator isn’t familiar with any other types of events at The Ark,” county public information officer Brett Vines said.
Additionally, the county didn’t know about horse shows at any of the other farms in the county, from Misty Meadows in Weddington to Hidden Spring in Monroe. Vines said that Misty Meadows wouldn’t fall under the county’s jurisdiction anyway, as its within Weddington town limits and their zoning would take precedent.
The only difference for Cross Creek came from an anonymous phone call, made at the beginning of January to the county, accusing the farm of being in violation.
Once the state law was changed, giving horse farms an exemption from the building code in June, the county changed its position, issuing a citation based on the fact Brown held events without a special use permit. Again requesting Cross Creek to shut down, which Brown did.
Union County Weekly looked at other farms throughout the county, again searching for any with a special use permit. The only thing that came close was the Wickersham K-9 Ranch, which has a special use permit with the county to operate a dog boarding facility. All other facilities, the county said it was unaware of activities going on, which total more than 30 horse shows and rodeos per year for the farms Union Weekly looked at.
The only other farm shut down for lack of a special use permit happened two years ago, with Marshville resident Thomas “Pinky” Marsh, who has been in and out of court over the last four years with the county, arguing they don’t have the authority to regulate the Mexican-style rodeos he staged at his property. The difference between the two is Marsh went to the county to request a special-use permit and was granted one to hold four rodeos a year. In multiple court rulings, judges came back to the fact Marsh had requested a permit, stating that act gave the county definite jurisdiction over the events. Brown on the other hand never approached the county, with an investigation only taking place after the complaint was filed.
Tired of waiting
Brown said he tried to get answers from the county, as to what classified as an event. The 30,000 sq. ft. Cross Creek Arena plays host each year to multiple events, ranging from rodeos to visits from special needs groups. Until this year, Brown said, he didn’t have any problems. Since the county shut him down the first week of January, he estimates he’s lost $40,000.
“I have lost a substantial amount,” Brown said. “Even if I can open back now, that still doesn’t fix the problem. I lost clients, who had to find other places at the last minute when the county shut me down. I don’t know if I’m gonna get them back.”
As to the question of opening up again, Brown said he wanted something in writing from the county first, before he took a chance.
“If I open up again and they come back with another citation, I’ll just lose more business,” Brown said. “This group of commissioners say they want economic development, but here they are, shutting down a small business.”
He also doesn’t understand what he sees as a double standard with how the county handled his case and the one with Monroe based Boggs Paving. Boggs was in violation of the county land use ordinance, the same ordinance cited when they shut down Cross Creek. Boggs Paving applied for a rezoning permit and was allowed to keep operating.
County manager Cindy Coto said the issue was with how the county had to operate its zoning enforcement, due to finances.
“Our system is a reactive (one),” Coto said, adding the county only found out about the Boggs violation because the company filed a rezoning request. “The intent is the bring people into compliance. We don’t issue a notice of violation, (except) in cases where they stop making actions to move forward.”
Why then, Brown asked, did the county issue him a citation after his March 20 rodeo, rather than answer his questions and help him understand what he needed to file?
“I don’t see why I should be punished,” Brown said. “What did I do wrong?”