Orange County

Weddings back on at Barn of Chapel Hill, but scrutiny continues

Plants were installed this spring around the Barn of Chapel Hill, which owner Kara Brewer relocated from upstate New York and rehabilitated. Brewer now has a special events permit that allows her to hold 12 weddings and other gatherings over the next 12 months.
Plants were installed this spring around the Barn of Chapel Hill, which owner Kara Brewer relocated from upstate New York and rehabilitated. Brewer now has a special events permit that allows her to hold 12 weddings and other gatherings over the next 12 months. Contributed

While weddings are back on at the Barn of Chapel Hill in southwestern Orange County, not everybody’s celebrating.

The county Board of Adjustment in March rejected weddings, retreats and other non-farm events being held at the 22-acre Wild Flora Farm on Morrow Mill Road. However, owner Kara Brewer got a permit May 5 to hold some weddings there, because that’s allowed in the county’s agricultural and residential areas.

Brewer also got a letter that day warning her that an April 28 entrepreneurship workshop held at the farm violated county rules.

The special-events permit resolved that issue, Planning Supervisor Michael Harvey said. It allows Brewer to hold at least 12 weddings with up to 150 guests, plus other farm-related events. Brewer said she did have to find other options for five scheduled weddings.

The permit allows special events until 9 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, and 11 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and four Sundays in May and June.

Still controversial

Brewer’s farm remains highly contentious, with surrounding neighborhood signs opposing the “Party Barn.” Neighbors loitered near the property line during the first wedding on May 7 and called the Orange County Sheriff’s Office around 9:30 p.m. to complain about the noise.

Deputies responded but didn’t hear any noise, sheriff’s officials said. Brewer also had two off-duty deputies at the event, as required by her permit.

Neighbors contacted county planning staff May 8 about the noise and the event’s late night. They investigated, Harvey said, but couldn’t prove any claims. Brewer was reminded about the rules, and Harvey now is patrolling the area during special events.

At issue is whether the Barn of Chapel Hill is a farm holding agritourism events or a wedding venue masquerading as a farm.

Brewer has a U.S. Department of Agriculture farm number and a forestry plan — two of five criteria that prove a “bona fide” farm’s status under state law. She notes they planted chestnut trees and flowers last year, and worked with a Durham beekeeper to set up hives for honey production.

They recently sowed a new crop of late summer and fall flowers, and the well is finished, she said, making it easier to irrigate the plants. The septic system is still under construction, but the farm is providing portable restrooms for guests, she said.

“We’re still dealing with a few little things out in the field, and finishing up with our drip irrigation and the barn, but over the next few weeks, everything should be settling down,” Brewer said.

While they haven’t talked with their neighbors, she said they are welcome to tell her about problems. They’re being careful to play amplified music indoors and stay under the noise limits, she said.

“I’m making sure to take readings 30, 40 feet from the barn, and you can’t hear anything, so I’m really conscious,” Nrewer said. “I don’t want to make any noise at all.”

In the courts

The final decision about the barn’s future as an events space could rest with Orange County Superior Court.

Andrew Petesch, the attorney for Brewer and her husband Chris Brewer, filed one petition in January and another on May 4 asking the court to reverse the Board of Adjustment’s ruling. The petition claims the decision is unlawful and not based on evidence; does not protect the Brewers’ due process rights; is arbitrary and capricious; and exceeds the board’s authority.

Harvey said he understands neighbors’ frustration at seeing Brewer get an events permit, despite their two-year fight to stop the barn and the board’s March decision blocking weddings and other events. A court decision offering specific guidance would help everyone, he said.

“Because the board did confirm that this is a bona fide farm, Ms. Brewer is able to take the opportunities afforded to every other farmer in the ordinance we have, in this instance, rural special events, without going to get a special-use permit,” he said.

Barn history

March 2015: Kara Brewer and Southeast Property Group buy 22 acres at 7316 Morrow Mill Road

November 2015: Board of Adjustment rejects a special use permit application for a “farm event building” at the site, noting the barn, wastewater system and parking were designed for weddings and events

January 2016: Brewer files a similar application for county staff review, citing the state’s bona fide farm rules

March 2016: Brewer resubmits the same application, but changes the use to “barn for agricultural use”

May 2016: Planning staff approves the barn’s building and utility permits

October 2016: Neighbors appeal decision to Board of Adjustment, which stops work on the barn and asks staff to re-evaluate its decision

November 2016: Planning staff affirms its earlier decision

January 2017: Brewer’s attorney petitions Orange County Superior Court to reverse the October 2016 decision

March 2017: Board of Adjustment hears another appeal, decides Barn of Chapel Hill is a bona fide farm but that it can’t use the barn for weddings and other non-farm events

April 2017: Neighbors file multiple complaints with the Planning Department about zoning violations

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