JOHNSON COUNTY– The builder and owner of the Celebration Barn finally has something to celebrate.
Or, at least, there is a celebration to work toward.
Rural Solon resident Dick Schwab has been seeking a special events permit from Johnson County since his original five-year Conditional Use permit for a home business expired in 2011, the county amended its ordinance for special events in January of this year, and the Johnson County Board of Adjustment disagreed on its interpretation last month.
The Board of Adjustment voted 3-1 in its May 16 meeting that Schwab could receive a multiple special events permit, as per the county’s amended Special Events Ordinance, if he receives the okay from the State Fire Marshal’s office and makes recommended adjustments to increase the safety of the building.
At issue was whether or not the Special Events Ordinance required a safety inspection to be completed by the county’s own building official, or if the county would accept an inspection conducted by a private firm. The ordinance states an applicant may, as an alternative, hire a licensed professional to conduct the safety inspection, but at least two members of the Board of Adjustment said they had stipulated in March that the inspection be done by the Johnson County Building Official, and that the building must comply with the 2009 International Building Code (IBC).
Schwab obtained both inspections: county staff cited 13 violations of the IBC, while an inspection conducted by Carlson Design Team of Iowa City concluded the building would be safe to host events if certain improvements were made.
The Board of Adjustment’s primary concern in March was that the building– a 100 ft. diameter round barn with a 50 ft. high cupola– has no sprinkler system or manual fire alarm. Other violations indicated the building is larger and taller than code standards, the cupola is 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.
Carlson submitted a two-page report saying the structure was adequate to host events with up to 300 people, and made 10 recommendations to address the county’s non-compliance issues, including installing a fire alarm system and improving the building’s accessibility according to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
At the April meeting, Board of Adjustment members Dorothy Maher and James Amlong appeared ready to deny Schwab’s permit based on the county’s inspection, but Schwab’s attorney asked to defer the decision until Assistant County Attorney Andy Chappell could be present.
Chappell was there on May 16 to offer his interpretation of the ordinance. Recapping a written memo Chappell had submitted to the board prior to its meeting, he gave the history of the special events ordinance amendment.
Previously, special events were only allowed outside or in temporary structures, and safety inspections could be conducted easily. When the county’s definition of special events changed to allow them to be held in existing or permanent structures, it made safety inspections more complicated. Since a county’s building code, by Iowa law, cannot be applied to buildings on farmland, “there are innumerable structures in the county that could be used for multiple special events but have never been subjected to building code inspections,” Chappell wrote. To require them to comply with current building codes would be difficult, or even impossible, without tearing out walls or digging up foundations. “If (a building) had not been subjected to the building code, no occupancy permit would be applicable.”
Therefore, Chappell explained, county staff had to find another way to address safety concerns.
The ordinance now includes two alternatives for an applicant to establish a structure is safe for the public: to secure an inspection from the county building official, or one from an appropriately licensed professional.
“This process was deemed adequate, initially by county staff and by the Board of Supervisors when they adopted it, to balance the desire to allow special events in existing permanent structures with the need to ensure the safety of the public when they are attending these events,” Chappell concluded.
After Chappell gave his opinion, the Board of Adjustment voted 3-1 to allow the permit pending the State Fire Marshal’s approval of occupancy, and Schwab making the improvements recommended by Carlson Design.
It means Schwab could be hosting weddings and charity events at the Celebration Barn by June 2.
According to the ordinance, only 12 events per year will be allowed, and Schwab has a wedding scheduled for the first weekend in June. As a backup, he applied for and received a single special event permit to allow him to host the wedding outside at the Celebration Barn site.
Schwab said last week that he had a team of people working to make the required changes to the building.
“We are working with all due haste to make those changes before the end of the month,” Schwab said, as workers install the fire alarm system, make electrical improvements and install bathroom ventilation fans. “We hope there will be no issues prior to the June 2 event.
Schwab said he was pleased with both the Board of Adjustment’s decision, as well as their rigorous process the county engaged in to get there.
“The staff dealt with some pretty delicate issues in a very professional manner,” Schwab said. “The members of the Board of Adjustment, for the most part, asked good probing questions and did their job well.”
However, there are still a few members of the public who feel the Board of Adjustment was right to demand the barn comply with IBC, and wrong to grant the permit. Four people sent letters to the board asking them to uphold their March directive and deny the special events permit until Schwab could bring the building up to IBC standards, including Laurie Tulchin of rural Solon and Tom Carsner of Iowa City.
“The IBC is not debatable for a good reason ,” Carsner wrote. “It is the gold standard of building construction safety and public health. When municipalities adopt it as their own building code, as Johnson County did in 2007, the debate ends. Any attempt to debate the relative importance of its various sections is only a diversion from the question of compliance with the code.”
Regarding Chappell’s opinion on the special events amendment, Jim Glasgow of Glasgow Construction, Iowa City, wrote to Chappell, “Existing structures are not difficult to inspect for code compliance; extreme measures are not required. It is done all the time, and buildings that are remodeled or have a change of use are brought up to code.”
Further, Glasglow said, the “Planning and Zoning staff did not need to adopt the alternative to inspection by the Building Department. That was done because it was common knowledge that Dick Schwab’s building would not pass Johnson County Building Code and the members of the Board of Supervisors directed Planning and Zoning staff to make it work so Dick Schwab could continue operating. The result was this unprecedented wording that allows this particular business to avoid compliance with ADA, IBC and fire codes.”
Schwab responded that the Board of Supervisors based its ordinance amendment on the county’s strategic plan to encourage rural economic development.
“For Laurie Tulchin and Tom Carsner, it’s all about Dick Schwab because they don’t like me. But for the Board of Supervisors and the Board of Adjustment, they are seeing a much bigger picture than the Celebration Barn,” Schwab said. “They are seeing other venues, and other operations, that if required to comply with the IBC as the only standard for a safe building, they put a whole lot of places out of business. And that is not their intent.”
Schwab said officials in the State Fire Marshal’s office and the professionals who write building codes understand there is more than a single way to make buildings safe for exits, fires and other safety issues.
“My opponents speak with a good deal of authority, but more authority and knowledge than they actually have,” Schwab concluded. “I put my trust in the professionals.”