Planners approve Miller barn permit

The Rappahannock County Planning Commission voted at its monthly meeting last Wednesday (March 20) to approve an adaptive-use permit for Cliff Miller that allows him to rent his family’s old dairy barn as an event venue for 15 events a year.

The commission also voted to approve a special-use permit allowing Svetozar and Marlene Krasic to continue renting their property out as a tourist home. Both matters were scheduled to be heard before the Board of Zoning Appeals last night (Wednesday, March 27) and, if approved, at the supervisors 7 p.m. meeting Monday (April 1).

Cliff Miller’s plans to use his family’s old dairy barn to host 15 events annually were delayed by the commission because of safety concerns. Photo by Roger Piantadosi.
Cliff Miller’s plans to use his family’s old dairy barn to host 15 events annually were delayed by the commission because of safety concerns. Photo by Roger Piantadosi.

The Miller barn permit had originally come before the commission in February, when the commission continued the matter to March so Miller could address several safety concerns raised at the first hearing.

Chief among them was the lack of a clear emergency plan that could be enacted if there was a fire or similar emergency situation. Miller submitted a modified life-savings plan to the commission last week that addressed many of the issues raised in February.

With Sperryville fire chief (and county building office director) Richie Burke, Miller had developed a fire safety plan to address potential congestion on the barn’s access road that would impede fire and rescue personnel from reaching it quickly in an emergency.

With the new plan, Miller and Burke designated an area just outside the barn (and with access to the nearby Thornton River for water) reserved solely for emergency personnel. There is also an area northwest of the barn where guests would be moved in the event of an emergency – thereby allowing fire and rescue personnel sole access to the barn’s single-track lane from U.S. 211, as well as preventing guests from all leaving at once and potentially causing a panic.

Miller’s revised plan also called for clearly marked signs in the parking lot to designate the fire lane boundaries. He also said he intended to issue a copy of the fire safety plan to every guest, ensuring everyone understood what to do in the event of an emergency.

Miller also addressed some other concerns raised at the previous meeting, presenting the commissioners with a new “life-saving plan” (which establishes safety parameters for the building) by engineer Chuck Stephenson, which covered both floors of the barn.

Stephenson’s new, modified plan called for the installation of networked smoke detectors on both the second floor – which is the main floor, and thus where most guests would be congregating – and the first floor – which is where the food would be stored and which only staff would have access to.

This means that if smoke was detected on either floor of the barn, guests would be alerted to its presence and evacuated accordingly. Stephenson’s plan also includes temporary barricades around several of the barn’s staircases, clearly indicating to guests which stairs weren’t supposed to be used.

Hampton district commissioner Alvin Henry had previously raised the issue of the barn’s accessibility, noting there was only one handicapped-accessible entrance/exit to the barn, a potential problem in the event of a fire. “That’s a long ways to go if something goes wrong,” Henry said at the commission’s February meeting.

Miller’s new plan added two more spaces of designated handicap parking, as well a wider, longer crusher run (gravel) driveway leading up to the access ramp. Miller also added a handicapped-accessible restroom at the bottom of the ramp.

Miller also presented the commissioners with a letter from the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), approving the entrance from Mount Vernon Lane onto U.S. 211 as a “low volume commercial entrance,” meaning it could be used “for up to 50 trips per day, each day of the year.”

Miller said he had no intention of producing that volume of traffic, and was sticking with his initial request of hosting 15 events per year, mostly “in the spring, late summer and early fall.”

Rick Lessard, an architect since 1980 and a neighbor to Miller, expressed his support of the permit to the commission, saying he thought Miller was “being very reasonable.”

“I believe he does have it under control,” Lessard said, noting that, in his professional opinion, Miller’s maximum occupancy could have been as high as 500. “I think it’s something the county should support.”

Stonewall-Hawthorne district commissioner Gary Light thanked Miller for the thoroughness of his applications, and for addressing many of the commissioners initial concerns.

“I appreciate the effort that’s obviously gone into addressing our safety concerns,” Light said. “I think it’s a great use for it and I support the application.”

Henry and Piedmont district commissioner Gary Settle thanked Burke, both for his presence at both meetings for explaining and for clarifying many of the commissioners’ questions.

“Each event here [at the Miller barn] requires a permit – that’s a check and that’s a good thing for us,” Settle said. “It’s a good thing for Sperryville. People come out to Rappahannock and spend money – and that’s a good thing for the county.”

Settle made the initial motion to approve the permit, but did add some requirements to it. Miller has to submit a finalized life-saving plan to the commission before hosting an event; occupancy is restricted to a maximum of 261 people (including staff); all events have a curfew of midnight; there must be at least two non-family-member fire safety marshals at every event; and there can be no open flames (cooking or smoking), though Miller is allowed heating plates for food.

At the request of neighbor Ellen Berg, the commission also imposed a “good-faith” request that Miller “screen” part of the property between Berg and Miller to help cut down on light and noise from the cars entering and exiting events.

The commission also attached an 18-month review to the permit, noting that if things went well with the venture, it was possible for the review to either be relaxed or completely removed.

The board also voted unanimously (7-0) to approve the Krasics special-use permit allowing them to continue renting their three-bedroom home as a tourist home for up to six people.

The Krasics, whose property is located on Keyser Run Road in Washington, admitted they had actually been renting the property out since summer 2012 without knowing they needed a county-issued permit in order to legally do that.

County Administrator John McCarthy said that the matter wasn’t before the commission because of any complaints, but rather just because the county had seen the tourist home listing online and informed the Krasics they needed a special-use permit.

“No one [of the neighbors] even knew the house had been rented,” Marlene Krasic told the board. “We’re very careful with our clientele.”

After informing the board that they remained nearby and managed the renting clientele carefully, the board recommended approval.