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Bill aims to change fire code to ensure safe barn weddings

Wayne Butt and Randy Schmitz have each spent seven figures to ensure their barns that serve as wedding venues are up to code.

However, they and Rep. Jeff Howe (R-Rockville) know of similar structures where weddings and receptions take place that are not safe.

“We’ve found that because they’re in a place that does not normally enforce the building code, many [operators] don’t even know they need to get a permit,” Howe said. “… Now it’s constructed and we’ve found that when you notify the state building official this place has been built, now what it falls into is an existing non-conforming structure, so the building code doesn’t really apply.

“In order to get these things looked at, we looked at the state fire marshal’s office because those are the people that deal with most of the existing buildings.”

Howe sponsors HF4023 that would require the office to inspect “places of public accommodation” every three years to ensure fire code compliance.

A small per-square-foot fee could be charged, with the money used to run the inspection program.

The bill, with a technical oral amendment, was held over Tuesday by the House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee for possible omnibus bill inclusion. Its companion, SF3612, sponsored by Senate President Michelle Fischbach (R-Paynesville), awaits action by the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee.

As defined in the bill, a “place of public accommodation” is:

  • designed for occupancy by at least 200 people;
  • serves alcohol; and
  • is not a lodging house, hospital, hotel, nursing home, school, place of worship or property owned or operated by a congressionally chartered veterans service organization.

Howe spoke of attending a barn wedding last year at “a beautiful structure,” and upon noticing the lack of things like a fire alarm or “EXIT” signs, he made sure he and his wife sat by a door.

“I said if something happens in here, not everybody is getting out,” Howe said.

That’s the problem, said Schmitz, who owns Rolling Ridge Wedding & Event Center in St. Joseph.

“Many of these existing properties came into existence because [someone] had a barn, they painted it, mowed the grass and held a wedding for a family member,” he said. “At this wedding, several people asked if they could have their wedding there for a friend or family member. They soon found out the revenue potential and instantly they were in business without a permit or going through the proper engineering processes.

“Others have simply built a shed or barn on their personal property with a permit, but misled it as a storage building or an agricultural building or simply as a workshop. Soon after the inspection the building became a business.”

Schmitz knew that if he didn’t play by the rules, his business could be shut down, he could be sued or even put in jail.

“We followed the code and it cost us more than a million dollars,” he said.

Butt, who owns the Historic John P. Furber Farm in Cottage Grove, said the market for barn weddings is strong.

“A fire in a 50- to 100-year-old barn is a tragedy waiting to happen,” he said. “… We have a chance to make a difference and be proactive rather than reactive.”

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