Safety concerns delay Miller barn permit

The Rappahannock County Planning Commission voted unanimously last Wednesday night (Feb. 20) to table until March a decision on Cliff Miller’s application for a permit to use his family’s old dairy barn to host events.

The commission voted to delay their final recommendation so Miller could address several safety concerns raised during their meeting. Miller is seeking an adaptive-use permit, hoping to use his 8,400-square-feet barn to host about 15 events annually.

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 barn, as Miller said, “is not just any barn . . . it was built by my grandfather in 1917 . . . and I’ve been told it’s the largest of its type east of the Mississippi [River] . . . I’d be thrilled if we can keep it up for another 50 years – then it might be the only one in the country.”

Miller pointed out that there likely wouldn’t need to be any adjustments to the barn, as a parking lot with room for about 120 cars already exists, and outdoor lighting is already installed. Miller also immediately agreed to a suggestion that events not go later than 11 p.m.

Obtaining the permit, however, requires the development of a “life-saving plan,” which is developed by a professional engineer and establishes safety parameters for the building. The life-saving plan, which is still being finalized, set a maximum occupancy limit of 237 people, with requirements that at least one event usher be assigned to look for potential fire hazards and that the barn be inspected for safety issues before each event.

County Attorney Peter Luke added the stipulation that there be no cooking, smoking or open flames at any time.

Nonetheless, several commission members had lingering questions about the safety of the barn, concerns voiced most vocally by Hampton district representative Alvin F. Henry. Henry said he was concerned with the the barn’s floor, noting that shoes with any sort of heel would very likely “dig into the ground,” which could cause people to fall and lead to any number of injuries.

“That floor absolutely needs to be addressed,” Henry insisted.

Henry said he was also concerned with there being only one handicapped-accessible entrance/exit to the barn, which could be a problem in the event of a fire. “That’s a long ways to go if something goes wrong,” Henry said.

However, Henry said his single biggest concern was what would happen if the barn should ever catch fire. “That whole thing’s going to burn pretty easy,” Henry said, noting that a fire could cause a panic and make the situation much worse.

“I’m all for the adaptive use,” Henry told Miller, “but I’d rather see you put 235 people in a tent than in that barn . . . I can’t remember a bigger safety issue coming before us.”

“The barn may be more susceptible to fire than some other places,” said Piedmont district commissioner Gary Settle, “but I don’t want to see us make a decision out of fear.”

Settle, who’s also a volunteer with the Sperryville Volunteer Fire Company, said one of his main concerns was providing easy access to and from the building for fire and rescue personnel. Currently, the way to the barn is down a single-track, hard-surface lane from U.S. 211. Settle, and Sperryville fire chief and county building office head Richie Burke, said that due to the weight of the responding fire trucks, simply driving them through the grass wouldn’t be an option; some sort of plan to ensure emergency vehicles received the right-of-way on the actual road was needed.

Settle suggested a contingency plan, one designed to educate party guests on what to do in the event of a fire, be implemented, and that the driveway be expanded to two lanes, allowing the trucks easier access and making it easier for guests to come and go. The idea of a gridlock (both at the barn and turning back onto U.S. 211) created by all guests trying to leave at the same time was also discussed.

“This barn and this use are a tremendous value to the village of Sperryville,” Settle concluded. “But there is still some work to be done.”

“This is a real asset to the community,” said Flint Hill resident Phil Irwin, adding that he thought this use fits well with the county’s comprehensive plan and its emphasis on promoting agriculture and tourism. “With the proper control, I’m all for it.”

The commissioners ultimately decided they weren’t comfortable reaching a conclusion at that meeting and voted to delay a potential decision on matter until their March 20 meeting. By then, Miller said his life-saving plan would be finalized and more thorough answers to the commissioners’ safety concerns could be provided.