Kara Brewer is, quite literally, surrounded by neighbors who want her gone.
She didn’t seem especially bothered by this fact the day I drove out to her property in Bingham Township, in southwestern Orange County. Brewer, thirty-seven, was visible from Millikan Road, working inside a small garden encased in deer netting. She wore black leggings and a sporty turquoise tank top. She looked like she was on her way to Whole Foods after a yoga session.
Instead, she was inhabiting a role higher up the agrarian supply chain, tending to some recently planted sunflowers and zinnia, and discussing the eventual honey yield on three beehives that sat twenty yards away. Brewer pointed across the path, at a cluster of saplings wrapped in white cylindrical guards.
“And those are the chestnut trees,” she said. “We’re starting with forty, and plan to add another forty each spring until we get to three hundred or so. We’ll have a processing facility in the barn for them because we’re going to be making gluten-free flour from them. The flour comes from the chestnut itself.”
Brewer and her husband, Chris, live in a part of Chapel Hill that lies in Chatham County, near Jordan Lake. Through an LLC called Southeast Property Group, they purchased this land—twenty-two acres—in March 2015. At the time, it was completely wooded. They kept in place the trees around the property’s exterior but hollowed out its guts.
On the day I visited, a man in a large Boosan excavator was carving out a second road into the property. Deeper inside, where several acres of trees had been felled, branches burned on a pile, part of the clearing process.
“That’s where the parking lot will be,” Brewer said. “Over there is where the flower beds will be; we’ll start with a half-acre of cut-flower production and keep adding until we have one and a half or two acres for production. And then where we’re standing right now is where the barn will go.”
The barn, built in 1860, is being imported from upstate New York. Brewer says it will serve many purposes: refrigeration for the hand-cut flowers, storage for the chestnuts. It will also host weddings.
“But that’s a small part of what we’re doing,” Brewer told me, a faint strain in her voice. “It’s not the whole picture.”
To their new neighbors, the Brewers’ enterprise is not a working farm that will occasionally serve as a wedding venue. To them, it will be a loud, busy events space—and a cynical one at that. The Brewers, most of Bingham Township will tell you, are cloaking themselves in pastoralia to flout the law. They’re interlopers, Chapel Hill carpetbaggers, gentrifying capitalists. They seek to commodify the rustic beauty of this farming community and threaten to destroy its centuries-old way of life.
The opposition has not been subtle. Starting at Highway 54, and all along Morrow Mill and Millikan roads, dozens of yard signs proclaim, “Real Farms Don’t Have DJs.” A huge canvas banner shouting, “Stop the Party Barn on Morrow Mill,” with a link to a website called stopthepartybarn.com, faces one entrance to the Brewer property. There is, in fact, no property adjacent to the Brewers’ land that has not posted signage critical of the Barn of Chapel Hill, the official name of the operation.
The grumbling began a year ago and has intensified as the dispute has wended its way through the labyrinth of county-level planning, permitting, and, now, appeals.
At its root is a larger knot that Orange and other counties in North Carolina are increasingly trying to untangle: Who’s a farmer, and who deserves the privileges afforded to farmers?
There were four founding families along this stretch of Bingham Township, according to Chris Durham: the Tapps, the Smiths, the Thompsons, and the Pickards. Durham is a descendent of the Smiths. She’s a Bingham expat—she now lives about five miles away—but she grew up in a white farmhouse on the property next to the Brewers, and her daughter still lives off Millikan Road.
In early August, Durham gave me what amounted to a riding tour of her childhood. When cars passed by—just three in ninety minutes—she waved from the steering wheel. As we cruised past fields of soybeans and corn, Durham pointed out land and homes and ticked off the names of people, often her relatives, who currently own them, or who owned them forty years ago, or who owned them a hundred years ago. Once, she referred to a property owner who has lived on Morrow Mill Road for thirty years as “new.” Her Southern accent is more Georgia than Chapel Hill. You could tie your shoes in the space between consonants.
We came upon the Brewer property and Durham slowed her GMC sports-utility vehicle. Construction sounds—the roar of a chainsaw, the beeping of a backhoe—could be heard in the distance, out of sight.
“When I was little, there was a little pathway my mother and I would walk through, a teeny-tiny little path that led to her mother’s house, which was over on Morrow Mill Road,” Durham told me. She pointed at the road being built on the Brewers’ land. “It went right through there, where they’re building this … thing.” She shook her head.
We took a left on Morrow Mill and pulled into the driveway of Thomas and Doris Ray. The Rays bought their house, directly across from the public entrance to the Brewer property, in 1962. Thomas wandered up from a garden in the back to say hello. He wore camouflage suspenders over a T-shirt from a bluegrass festival and khaki shorts. He had tan skin and piercing blue eyes; sunglasses rested on the bill of his Goodyear hat.
Thomas was unwilling to discuss the situation on the record, but a document filed to the Orange County Board of Adjustment in May, on behalf of the Rays and two other neighbors, articulates their concerns. The “real and proven special damages” they claim the Barn of Chapel Hill will cause include overflow parking, littering, and noise; the threat of trespassing and damage to animals on their farms; a decrease in property values; and the “loss of the quiet enjoyment of their properties.”
Situated as the Rays are, they could see as many as 150 cars come and go past their home on weekend nights. (The Barn of Chapel Hill plans to pave 150 parking spaces to accommodate as many as 250 guests.) The fact that the Brewers will not be residing on the property—and will thus not be around to handle issues that arise—is also a cause for unease.
At an Orange County Board of Adjustment meeting last year, Doris Ray voiced her displeasure with the Brewers’ plan.
“When we first built [our home], the roads were all dirt, there were no telephones. So we have seen a lot of growth in this community. But it’s all been with beautiful homes, horse pastures, dairy farmers around. It’s been very quiet. We never have a lot of noise, we never hear noise, very seldom. … Thomas and I have now retired, and we are close enough to the highway that when we sit in our living room or when we sit on our front porch in our rocking chairs we enjoy seeing the neighbors walking and jogging and riding their horses, waving at them. I’m afraid that this will not happen if the barn is built there.”
“It’s just a very small, quiet part of the county, and you can go out at night and listen to the crickets and the frogs and the whippoorwills and look at the starry night sky,” Durham told me, gesturing at the cornfields and the tall trees. “And I guess it would be fair to say we’d like to keep it that way.”
One of the harsh realities of rural Orange County today is that it’s difficult to buy land and make a profit farming it. The land is too costly, and the return on traditional crops—corn, soybeans—is not sufficient.
“The margins are too narrow,” says Earl McKee, chairman of the Orange County Board of Commissioners and a farmer in his own right. “If you want to buy a hundred acres, and land is going at ten thousand dollars an acre, that’s a million dollars before you’ve planted a seed or bought your equipment. And one hundred acres is really too small for a real farming operation to come out very far ahead.”
Forty years ago, he adds, “I could net two or three thousand dollars an acre, so I could afford to pay a thousand dollars an acre for land. But if you’re netting less than a thousand dollars an acre, and you gotta make your land payments with that, and live off that—I mean, it doesn’t take an advanced accounting degree to figure out you can’t last long under those conditions.”
Certain vegetables and fruits—strawberries, for example—have a higher gross per acre, meaning you don’t need to buy nearly as much land to grow a lot of them. Even then, though, it’s tough to eke out a living.
Generally speaking, the best way for farmers to make the math work these days is to have come into possession of the farmland, whether through purchase or inheritance, decades ago, as McKee and the Rays and Durham and dozens of others have. It is a considerably more profitable enterprise, of course, to sell land to developers. But most farmers don’t want to be the one who sells off the family’s land; they want it to be their children, or their children’s children, but definitely not them. They want to preserve their way of life. So, what to do if crop prices and the weather aren’t cooperating?
Increasingly, the answer is agritourism: carve out a corn maze, hold a hayride, set up a petting zoo. Use what you’ve got, charge admission, and build a new revenue stream. Two years ago, Orange County even added a zoning provision called “Ag Support Enterprises” to encourage farmers to develop businesses on their farms.
“Bona fide farms”—operations recognized as farms by the state—have enjoyed an exemption from county zoning laws in North Carolina dating back to at least 1959. Practically speaking, this designation usually affords farmers the luxury of constructing structures on their property without having to deal with the bureaucratic rigmarole of local inspectors. In 2005, the state legislature added agritourism as a protected farm purpose, meaning, as the UNC School of Government’s Richard Ducker says, “Everything from managing the strawberry patch in your backyard to raising emus in a large pen to hosting a wedding in an historic barn may be exempt from county zoning.”
In 2011, the legislature went a step further, codifying how a property can become a bona fide farm. There are five criteria, and a farm must only meet one of them. Two of the five criteria—obtaining a forestry management plan and being issued a U.S. Department of Agriculture farm identification number—require very little, if any, independent verification that actual farming is performed on the property.
In other words, for the last five years, it has been extremely easy to get designated as a bona fide farm in North Carolina. The intention of the exemption was to make life easier for farmers. But this slackening of standards has also allowed nonfarmers to hop through the loophole.
The first anybody in Bingham Township heard of the Brewers’ plan was in the summer of 2015. Residents who lived within five hundred feet of the Brewers’ property line received a certified letter stating that their new neighbors had applied for a special-use permit to build a forty-two-hundred-square-foot events space.
“We couldn’t believe it,” says Ron Royster, who has lived on eighty acres of property owned by Clarene Rogers for over two decades. “We’re right on the other side of [the Brewers], with a layer of woods between us. Their plan would so drastically disrupt everyone’s life out here.”
(Rogers, who is eighty-eight and has resided off Morrow Mill Road since 1952, also opposes the Barn of Chapel Hill. “We don’t need a party barn out here,” she says, “and nobody asked for one.”)
Royster and other neighbors, as well as the nonprofit Preserve Rural Orange, mobilized in opposition. Last August, they first voiced their discontent at a neighborhood meeting required as part of the permitting process. In November, they packed a hearing in front of the Board of Adjustment.
The BOA unanimously rejected the Brewers’ application.
The Brewers could have appealed within thirty days. They did not. Instead, they pulled out their trump card: the USDA farm ID number they’d been issued when they purchased the land—even though the land hadn’t been farmed in decades. They declared that they did not need the BOA’s approval and moved along to the county’s planning department, where they applied for a building permit. The planning supervisor took a look at the USDA documentation and concluded that county zoning approval wasn’t required.
The Brewers’ plans, initially submitted in January, described the barn as a “farm event building” and called the project the “Brewer Wedding Venue.” A subsequent set of plans, submitted two months later, described it as a “barn for agricultural use” and called it the “Brewer Barn.” Text labeling an area “Bride’s Room” was scrubbed from the second set of plans. Nothing structural about the plans changed, just the words used to describe them. After two rounds of mostly semantic revisions, the planning department approved the Barn of Chapel Hill.
In early August, the Rays and other neighbors appealed the planning department’s decision. The appeal is tentatively set to be heard in October by the BOA, the same group that unanimously denied the barn’s special-use permit. The appeal also requested that the county clarify the definition of “agritourism.”
This is the true crux of the issue, says Tony Blake, who represents Bingham Township on the Orange County Planning Board. “What is the primary use of the barn, and does it meet the spirit of the law?” Blake says. “The answer to that tells you everything you need to know about what’s going on here.”
Blake says his duties on the planning board prevent him from answering his own question. But incoming Orange County commissioner Mark Marcoplos doesn’t believe the Barn of Chapel Hill qualifies as agritourism.
“It defies common sense,” Marcoplos says. “The law is designed to help farmers augment their income with another use of their farm. In this case, it’s being used by people who do not even have a farm established or a farm income to augment. They wanted to start an events business on a farm, so they decided to grow some flowers and call themselves a farm, and now they’re enjoying the benefits of agricultural policies intended for actual farmers. A sixth grader could see that this is putting the cart before the horse. It’s a totally flawed process.”
Tina Miller, county executive director of the USDA’s Orange-Durham County Farm Service Agency, says that, as a result of an uptick in questionable farm-number ID applications, her office recently tightened the rules for what merits a farm number.
“Many applications were coming in that just had houses on the lots or storage on the lots—nothing farming related, but still seeking the farm ID number,” Miller says. “So we got more specific about what we needed from applicants. They need to be either already be participating in a USDA farm program or they need to prove to us, with receipts, that they are actually growing something on their property.”
These changes occurred toward the end of 2015. But in January 2016, another farm ID number was issued to property owners who, like the Brewers, had not established a farm.
The Lavender Oaks Farm, formerly Lavender Oaks Estate, is a forty-five-acre plot six miles west of downtown Carrboro.
Wake County resident Karen Macdonald and her husband, Robert, bought the land and intend to retire there and start a five-acre lavender farm, they told The Chapel Hill Herald earlier this year. A man who worked on the property told the paper that the Macdonalds were planning to build “an event center between 8,000 and 10,000 square feet was going on the property.”
Macdonald declined to comment to the INDY on her plans.
“We are still in the building/planting phase and it will be several months to a year before everything is completed,” she wrote in an email, adding that those interested in their progress should check out the proposed farm’s upcoming website, lavenderoaks.farm, for “information about our lavender fields, lavender products we’ll make on the farm, and other farm happenings.”
Laura Streitfeld, executive director of Preserve Rural Orange, sees in the Macdonalds’ actions an uncanny resemblance to the Brewers’ approach.
“Both are multimillion-dollar projects that propose to construct new, large event venues for weddings using recycled barn wood,” Streitfeld says. “In each case, after public questions about the primary use of these properties—both of which were undeveloped and wooded prior to their purchase—the owners changed their stated purpose from ‘wedding venues’ to ‘farms.’ Before ever establishing any kind of agricultural activity, both properties stated their intent to pursue agritourism on their land, then presented USDA farm numbers to the county as evidence of their farm status and requested an agricultural exemption from zoning. And neither has experience as farmers, yet refer to their undeveloped properties as ‘family farms.’”
There are many other bucolic venues in rural Orange County that host rustic weddings: the Barn at Valhalla, Merry Hill, Snipes Farm Retreat, Rock Quarry Farm, and Rigmor House, to name a few.
David Owens, with the UNC School of Government, says that event spaces like these continue to crop up in rural areas of the state—and increasingly leave a trail of neighborly disputes.
“Wedding reception venues, commercial rodeos, and shooting ranges,” Owens says. “Those are the main three where you have landowners contending it’s agritourism, and the neighbors saying it’s not, and that it’s threatening their quality of life. Most of these disputes haven’t gotten past the county boards of adjustment. In some cases, the board of adjustment says the event space isn’t agritourism, and the landowners don’t appeal. In some cases, the board says it is agritourism, and the neighbors don’t appeal. So there’s no real judicial precedent. But there’s enough landowners wondering where the edge is here that, sooner or later, somebody’s going to take one of these to the court of appeals and get it litigated.”
There’s also the chance the legislature will clarify matters. More often than not, lawmakers side with farmers, but which side are the farmers on? They want to be free to do as they please on their own land. But they also want the county to step in when people like the Brewers do something they don’t like.
“If you buy twenty-five acres and say you’re going to raise tomatoes, that doesn’t mean I consider you a farmer,” McKee says. “For me to consider you a farmer, you gotta plant the tomatoes and raise the tomatoes, and go sunrise to sunset, and last a couple of years. Then I’ll accept you as a farmer. That’s the prevailing view in the agricultural community out here. You don’t gain status just by having a farm number.
“But that ain’t what the state says,” he adds. “The state says, You’ve got a farm number, you’re a farmer. And the state law is the final word. So my view, and the agricultural community’s view, is exactly that: our view. It don’t carry any weight in the eyes of the law.”
Out on her new dirt road off Millikan, Brewer told me she understood the neighbors’ concerns. They have “every right” to put up their signs, she said. “I encourage them to come talk to me.” Have they? She shook her head no.
Brewer said she based the plans for the Barn of Chapel Hill on Orange County’s own farmland protection plan.
“They want to keep usable land in production, which is what I’m doing,” she said. “They want to encourage innovative new ways—like ag tourism—to make money on farms, which I’m doing. And they want to entice younger farmers to come in as older farmers age out, which we are.” She rattled off all the farm-related activities—specialty-cut flowers, honey, chestnuts, educational programs, floral workshops—she is pursuing, or intends to pursue, and described how they will complement the wedding venue once it’s up and running next year.
She sounded determined—a little shaky, but determined. If Brewer hadn’t planned on being much of a farmer when she bought the place, perhaps the “party barn” conflict had nudged her in that direction.
Who knows? Maybe in five years, somebody like Earl McKee might drive down Millikan Road, spot the blooming chestnut trees swaying in the breeze, and view the Barn of Chapel Hill as a real farm—or, at least, as real a farm as can be built in Orange County anymore.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Bought the Farm”