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Special events ordinance stymies county board

IOWA CITY– A new ordinance written to regulate special events held in the county has thus far not smoothed the way for applicants.
Last week, it brought one more stumbling block for rural Solon resident Dick Schwab, as members of the Johnson County Board of Adjustment argued over the proper application of its language.
Schwab has been trying since early 2011 to renew a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) to host weddings and charity events at his property at 245th Street off Sugar Bottom Road. The Celebration Barn has been the site of special events since a five-year permit was issued by the Board of Adjustment in 2006, when Schwab first conceived the fifth of his distinctive round, stone-clad barns on his rural Solon property. The barn was struck by lightning and burned to the ground before completion but the 7,850 sq. ft. structure was rebuilt and opened for events in 2008.
However, when Schwab’s CUP came up for renewal in 2011, a handful of rural residents complained about the venue, citing traffic and safety concerns.
Ensuing discussions about the county’s restrictions on home businesses prompted the county’s planning and zoning staff and the board of supervisors to amend the county’s code to accommodate businesses that host repeat special events. The Johnson County Board of Supervisors adopted the Special Events ordinance in January 2012.
That document defines special events and limits them to no more than 12 per year in a single location with an approved permit. It also stipulates that permanent structures to be used for the events have valid occupancy permits, or be subject to inspection.
Inspections shall be done by a Johnson County Building Official, or, “in the alternative, the applicant shall provide a written certificate from an appropriately licensed professional indicating said structure is safe for the expected occupancy,” the ordinance dictates.
Schwab did both, and that is where the Board of Adjustment found a rub last Wednesday night.
Schwab applied for a permit under the policies of the new Special Events ordinance, and in March, the Board of Adjustment approved it with the stipulation that Johnson County’s inspectors establish that the barn meets the 2009 International Fire Code and Building Code.
On 13 counts, it did not. The building is larger and taller than code standards, the cupola is too large and not supported by non-combustible materials, there aren’t enough toilets to meet the required ratio to capacity, and a few electrical, mechanical and plumbing issues were found to be non-compliant. Most significantly, the barn does not contain a sprinkler system or a manual fire alarm.
To address the problems, Schwab hired Carlson Design Team of Iowa City to conduct a second inspection and make recommendations for increasing the barn’s compliance with county code, including adding a fire alarm and improving its ADA accessibility. Carlson submitted a two-page report with 10 recommendations to address the non-compliance issues.
Adding more toilets– currently, there are three for men and three for women, while the county code requires seven each for a capacity of 300– and a sprinkler system would be cost prohibitive, Carlson’s engineer concluded, but the location and number of the barn’s oversized egresses should allow for occupants to exit in time. The Carlson report included a certified statement by a licensed professional engineer that the barn was safe and structurally sound.
That didn’t satisfy Board of Adjustment members enough to approve the Special Events permit. Regarding the sprinkler system, the board conceded to allow the permit without one, provided the State Fire Marshall conduct an inspection and deem the building safe.
But the Carlson Design Team report did not sway board members Dorothy Maher, James Amlong or Dawn Terrell on the rest of the standards.
“We directed him in our conditional approval that it be inspected by the Johnson County building department,” Maher said. “We have conflicting opinions between inspectors.”
Board member Dave Parsons, who was absent for the March meeting, asked why the board imposed the 2009 International Building Code requirements.
“I would argue against being a slave to the most stringent standards in existence. There are other standards; why is this one sacrosanct?” Parsons asked.
Maher responded, “because we are a county board, and it’s reasonable we follow the county inspectors and the building code requirements that apply to every other person applying.”
Parsons then asked why the supervisors would include language allowing an alternative inspection if they didn’t think it was reasonable to do so.
“Well, I wonder why,” Maher shot back. Amlong chimed in as well.
“Good question. That’s a no brainer. For you to even say that…,” Amlong said, but would not clarify further. Assistant county planning & zoning director RJ Moore offered to explain why he thought the ordinance included the alternative, but Amlong cut him off, saying, “we don’t need to go into that. That’s not what we’re here to talk about.”
Parsons said he was concerned about setting a precedent for older buildings or agricultural buildings that would preclude owners from hosting special events.
“It seems like we are going past what board of supervisors has dictated what they want to see happen,” Parsons said, “because if we’re going to do this, we have to be prepared to do it for everybody. And it could mean that nobody else on the list is going to have any special events. Are we prepared for that? And is that what the board of supervisors intended?”
Ultimately, Schwab’s attorney Larry Lynch asked if the board would defer a decision on the application until assistant county attorney Andy Chappell could be present.
The board voted unanimously to defer their decision until its regular meeting in May.
After last week’s meeting, Amlong declined further explanation of his and Maher’s comments regarding the board of supervisors’ intentions.
“I do not wish to go into that,” Amlong said. “You can talk to the supervisors. They’re the ones that did it.”
Moore, who sat on the committee that drafted the Special Events ordinance, explained after the meeting why he believes the alternative inspection language was included.
“I believe the board understood there would be structures out there that probably couldn’t meet the code we enforce, but they still wanted to make sure the buildings were safe,” Moore said. “They wanted a licensed professional to put their reputation and license on the line and tell us whether or not that was a safe structure for this use.”
Also, Moore continued, county building officials are not able to inspect all buildings– specifically, agricultural-use buildings that are exempt from the building permit process– during their construction and from the ground up.
“But I think [the supervisors] still want to allow some rural economic activities to occur, including special events, in some of those structures,” Moore said.
Johnson County Supervisor Pat Harney, who also sat on the Special Events ordinance committee, later confirmed Moore’s remarks.
“RJ was right; it was put in because some buildings were built as agricultural buildings prior to having our inspection services put into place,” Harney said. “We have had event requests from Wilson’s Orchard and areas like that throughout the county with existing facilities. So we went through this process and decided 12 events a year was allowable, provided the facility was safe. We were trying to get around having to get completely up to code. On the other hand, we want to make sure the structure is solid– to carry a snow load so it wouldn’t fall in on people, for example. That was the purpose of allowing a structural architect to do an inspection and deem it safe.”
Harney said there was a statewide push a few years ago to give local boards of adjustment– which are appointed, not elected– authority to make conditional use decisions in order to take away the political nature of the decision making.
“It appears it is not working in this situation,” Harney said.
Schwab said in a post-meeting interview that he will follow the lead of the two attorneys in pressing forward for the permit, but that he also is concerned about the Board of Adjustment setting a bar too high.
“I appreciated their process tonight,” Schwab said. “But the slippery slope is the one that has been noted. If they do it for one, they have to do it for all, and St. Bridget’s [church], Sts. Peter and Paul [chapel], Wilson’s Orchard, any place that people gather, all will have to comply with the international building codes and none will be able to. I would hate to be the harbinger of that bad news for a lot of places in the county.”
The Johnson County Board of Adjustment meets the third Wednesday of each month at 5: 30 p.m. at the Johnson County Administration Building.