The standing-room-only crowd in the basement of 131 W. Margaret Street, in Hillsborough, heard from all sides in the dispute, which the INDY reported on last month
. That included Kara and Chris Brewer, who intend to build a wedding venue/events space called The Barn of Chapel Hill on twenty-two acres of property in rural Orange County; neighbors of that property who argue their quiet, rural lives will be disrupted by the hordes of visitors to the Brewers' property; and Michael Harvey, a planning department supervisor for the county.
The quasi-judicial hearing was held in order for the BOA to rule on whether the county's planning department erred in issuing the Brewers a permit for construction, as the neighbors claim in their appeal. The neighbors argue the county erred by not requiring the Brewers to obtain zoning approval from the county before issuing the permit. The Brewers say they are participating in "agritourism" on their property and that their USDA-issued farm ID number means they don't need to get county zoning approval. (The Brewers originally attempted to get zoning approval from the county, but when the BOA denied it, they stated that they didn't need it anyway, due to their farm number.)
Monday's hearing did not inject much clarity into matters. LeAnn Brown, the attorney representing the Brewers' neighbors, called on several adjacent property owners—Gleta Carswell, Alice and Margaret Wilkman, and Thomas and Doris Ray—to testify as to how the Barn of Chapel Hill would negatively impact their lives. Carswell said the horses on her property would become agitated by all the activity near the service entrance road being built for The Barn of Chapel Hill, and that her property would be "degraded and compromised" should the Brewers move forward with their plan. The Rays spoke of new car lights and noise impacting their quiet home of 54 years. Margaret Wilkman expressed concern about trespassers from events at Brewers' event space.
Asked by Brown about the county's decision to allow the Brewers to move forward with their building permit, Harvey said, "The argument, and I tend to agree with it, is that we [the county] don’t have authority or power to determine what constitutes agritourism activity; we rely solely on the state. We're prohibited from requiring zoning approval because the applicant was claiming farm use.”
Andy Petesch, attorney for the Brewers, questioned Kara Brewer in detail about her agricultural plans for the property, which include chestnut tress and cut flowers. She said she's already working with a chestnut farm in Hillsborough, and plans to sell chestnuts to area grocery stores and markets, and through direct sales. She also intends to process the nuts into gluten-free flour. Brewer shared her financial projections with the board.
Barry Katz, one of four members of the BOA present, expressed skepticism.
"I'm absolutely shocked by these projections for what she thinks she'll get from chestnuts," Katz said. "Chestnuts are a totally labor-intensive thing. You have to pick each one up individually. I don't believe these numbers at all."
Brewer responded that new machinery exists for collecting chestnuts and that she intends to make use of it.
"You've never lived on a farm before, you're about to essentially start three different farms on this property, and you have kids," Katz said. "And how many hours in the day are there? "
Petesch also introduced Erin White, a Raleigh-based community food-systems entrepreneur/designer
, as an expert on the slippery definition of agritourism
. Brown objected. White went on to submit his opinion that the Brewer's intentions qualified as a farm activity.
"The plan is still getting worked out and that’s typical of new farms," White said. "I think it is a thoughtful approach to building, to diversifying cash flow with a short-term emphasis on cut flowers and long-term on chestnuts. I think that makes a lot of sense. In my work, I haven’t met any young farmers that have everything worked out beforehand. This looks to me like something that's getting closer and I think, as far as new farmers go, it's in the appropriate state of development."
The black-and-red digital clock hanging in the corner of the room read ten-till-midnight. There were still more legal arguments to be heard from both sides.
"I think I'm losing my concentration," Katz said.
The board voted to revisit deliberations, and hopefully make a ruling, on October 24.
A grueling, four-and-a-half-hour meeting of the Orange County Board of Adjustments Monday night was not enough time for the board to arrive at a conclusion on the matter of Bingham Township's "party barn."