Heat intensifying on plans to use barn as wedding venue in town of Florida

Three men at a table and one standing speaking

Property owner John Kimber discusses plans to use an existing barn for a wedding venue on his active farm at 526 McDougall Road before the Florida Planning Board on March 6. (ASHLEY ONYON/THE RECORDER)

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TOWN OF FLORIDA — The owner of a McDougall Road farm is pushing back against neighbors’ concerns over plans to use an existing barn on the property for a wedding venue deep in the rural town of Florida.

“It’s my family residence, I have two young children. We’re actually the closest house to the barn, so we’re not looking to have incredibly loud events running in the barn, we’re not looking to have out of control parties,” said John Kimber during last week’s Planning Board meeting.

John and Grace Kimber are seeking a special permit to establish a wedding and event venue in an existing 2,200 square-foot barn on their active 35 acre farm where the family lives at 526 McDougall Road.

The space would be rented exclusively to Joe Goode, owner of Complete Weddings and Events Albany, to host special occasions booked in advance. The applicants estimate around four events would be held monthly from May through October.

The generated income would help support the farm, according to John Kimber, who said the family has set a 10 p.m. end time for all events and that he would “pull the plug” on the whole venture if events became troublesome.

“I personally don’t want to make a difficult situation for John and his neighbors,” Goode added.

The proposal garnered support from some townspeople pointing to the increasing popularity of rustic wedding venues and the efforts by the property owners to diversify in order to maintain their farm during a scheduled public hearing.

“As a town we seem to bend over backwards sometimes to listen to proposals from large industrial corporations while we make local property owners jump through hoops for development projects that other community areas are actively seeking,” Sara Cornett said.

“This type of project is really current and popular,” she added. “This project seems to be an appropriate means of growth for the town and also seems to align with our town’s community character.”

Comparing wedding guests to visitors at local craft fairs, resident Vanessa Curry said the noise from bustling events at “Old” Florida Town Hall has never disturbed her enjoyment of her nearby home in voicing support for the barn proposal.

Still, far more neighbors spoke out against plans they say would bring boisterous celebrations to upend the peaceful nature of the rural area that motivated most residents to settle in the town.

“We’re county people. We enjoy our quiet,” Walter Castiglia said.

Other residents pointed to the incongruity of formal events with the aromas of surrounding farm operations and raised safety concerns over guest traffic competing with agricultural equipment traveling on narrow rural roads.

“They’re trying to cram a commercial event center into an agricultural spot and it shouldn’t go,” neighbor Rebecca Countermine said.

Discussion between the Planning Board and the applicants became strained as member Peter Rea asked increasingly technical questions about noise levels from sound systems, brightness of outdoor lights and the composition of soil in a 1.5 acre grass field proposed for parking use.

“We’re here to determine whether this is appropriate,” Rea said. “I’m asking questions that I feel are pertinent to the safety of this venue and reflect comments from other taxpayers in this area.”

Tensions flared when board member John Hutchison suggested neighbors should have the authority to shut down operations at the venue if events prove to be a nuisance, including midway through festivities.

“I have a big issue with basically the city coming to the country,” Hutchison said. “I want the neighbors to have just as much a right as he does.”

“They think we’re all a bunch of dummies up here,” he added.

The last remark elicited a pointed reply from Benjamin Neidl, attorney for the Kimbers.

“I take exception to that. I think we’ve been nothing but respectful to the board. We’re doing nothing but petitioning for relief we’re entitled to seek from the board. We’re speaking to the board professionally, cordially and I would like to see courtesy back from the board,” Neidl said.

Planning Board Chairman Stephen Viele calmly reviewed local concerns suggesting limits on operating hours and the number of events allowed per month to control potential issues. He went on to suggest establishing a condition causing the special permit, if approved, to be revoked upon a certain number of complaints being submitted to and verified by the town code enforcer.

For now, Viele requested that applicants seek the maximum occupancy for the barn from the local fire department, conduct tests to ensure portable systems planned for outdoor use will not encroach on neighboring land and have a third party sound study prepared measuring noise levels from music systems for the board’s future review.

Although he agreed to the requests, John Kimber questioned the number of steps he has been asked to go through since submitting the proposal last spring.

“It’s going on for a long time now, every time I come back here with the information you ask for then there is more information you ask for and it just keeps going on,” John Kimber said. “I want to work with you and I want to get you your answers … but at some point we have to have a decision.”

The Planning Board last May determined the proposed wedding venue was not accounted for in town code and referred the project to the Zoning Board of Appeals to seek a variance, which was denied the same month.

Neidl subsequently filed an Article 78 proceeding in state Supreme Court appealing the referral to the ZBA, because the Planning Board does not have that authority. An interpretation from the town’s zoning enforcer should have been sought to determine whether the use is allowed in the agricultural district or a variance was required.

Attorneys for the town and Kimbers agreed to halt the appeal and follow the proper procedure. Code Enforcer Gerald Podolec found the proposal “consistent” with other special permitted uses allowed in the town’s agricultural district, comparing wedding activities to those held at churches or country clubs.

That determination issued late last year led the application back to the Planning Board for the ongoing review.

“The town got complaints and we want to put everything at ease,” Viele said. “I think there is discussion to be had … I’d like to see more.”

The public hearing on the wedding venue proposed at 526 McDougall Road will remain open for written comments submitted to Town Clerk Emily Staley at least five days prior to the next Planning Board meeting on April 3.

Reach Ashley Onyon at [email protected] or @AshleyOnyon on Twitter.

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