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Costly Controversy Ignites Over Sprinklers In Minnesota Wedding Barns

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Once used by Minnesota dairy farmers, barns are now big business in the wedding world.

But WCCO found hundreds of the old buildings are at the center of a costly controversy.

When Wayne Butt and his wife entered the wedding barn business five years ago, they say they weren't prepared for the amount of money and the politics at play for your big day.

"I want people to be educated on what's safe about a venue," Butt said. "The couple is looking for pretty, and infrastructure's not pretty."

Their Historic Furber Farm in Cottage Grove was one of just a few in Minnesota back then. Now, it's a crowded field with more than 200 venues.

"If you look around the chandeliers and the bling, that's all Angie, my wife. I'm just the mechanical guy that puts it together," Butt said.

One year in, and Furber Farms sales started to slow. Couples said they booked elsewhere due to cheaper rental rates. That led Butt to social media to see what was different.

"The first thing that really stood out to me was the fire suppression system was missing," Butt said.

A fire suppression system senses smoke or flames, triggering sprinklers to shoot water from the ceiling.

"I'm looking at all the competition around us and realize they're not doing the same thing," he said.

Butt says they paid the $350,000 for the pricey piping at the start, but found very few followed the same setup -- just 15.

Dolan Cahoon lost his barn to a fire in North Dakota three years ago. A dance hall for decades, Cahoon considers it luck that no one was inside.

"We had 60 mile-an-hour winds that day, and what it did was flip the highline wires," Cahoon said. "I'm guessing that fire probably burned a half hour before it come out."

At the time he had no sprinklers to keep the fire from spreading. They rebuilt, and this time spent the money to have them installed.

"It's a nightmare waiting to happen," Cahoon said.

The owners of two different barns without sprinklers told WCCO the missing system isn't that simple. Adam Wallis owns Bloom Lake Barn in Shafer.

"Sprinklers in general have their place, absolutely, but there more so to save structures, not to alert people of fires," Wallis said.

From structural loading, wind rating and fire safety, Wallis walked WCCO through the process to be able to open Bloom Lake Barn.

"We had to have an engineer kind of draw up plans, very detailed plans about how we were going to take this old barn built in the 30s to make it into a commercial building where it was going to be occupied by people for events," Wallis said.

Those plans included a fire retardant sprayed inside, the right signage, fire extinguishers and smoke alarms. Those alarms give warning to get out. Sprinklers go off at 160 degrees, when Wallis says everyone would already be gone.

"I'm not against sprinkler systems, they have a space. Apartment buildings, hotels, places where there are lots of rooms, where people don't have access to see all around them," Wallis said. "These barns are all open. There would be no time that fire would go off any point in the building here that people wouldn't be notified."

Wallis and Michael Buschilla helped to launch MNREVA -- the Minnesota Rural Event Venue Association. They are fighting back against legislation that would require sprinklers statewide.

"They're just basically changing the game on us at that point because we've already followed all of the exact steps that we had to follow that we were required to follow by the state and our local inspectors," Wallis said.

In many cases, the owners say the cost would be too much.

"We'd be out of business," Wallis said.

So why have some barns been required to have them and some have not? Owners say it comes down to classification and capacity. If you're capacity is less than 300 guests, you're considered what's called an Assembly A3 and not required to have sprinklers. If your capacity is more than that, it's an A2.

"They were basically trying to establish all barn venues in the whole state of Minnesota as A2," Wallis said.

As a certified building official, Roger Axel has spent more than 30 years studying and securing Twin Cities structures.

"Simply put, there are a lot of things wrong that we are just waiting for something to happen," Axel said. "What we do is equally important as police and fire. We just don't carry guns and we don't drive big, red trucks."

While he has no stake in this situation, Axel believes building officials can't close their eyes to it any longer.

"You still have to build to the code," Axel said.

He points to that state code that says if more than 200 people are in a venue, it must have sprinklers. Axel says studies prove sprinklers buy people inside more time in a fire, and that other safeguards are not trade-offs. He believes building and fire officials have an obligation to protect the public, with the potential for liability not worth the cost.

"One event happens, I can guarantee you your checkbook's not going to be big enough to cover this," Axel said.

The following is more on the classification of wedding barn venues from Minnesota's Department of Labor and Industry:

  • Minnesota Statutes 326B.108 gives authority for places of public accommodation (wedding barns) to DLI only when the occupant load is 200 or more as calculated per the state building code in non-enforced areas of the state.
  • Fire sprinklers are required in "A-2" occupancies when food and beverage are served when the occupant load is 100 or more or area used other the level of egress. Like a loft converted for eating. In this case fire sprinklers would be required at any occupant load. Fire sprinklers are also required if the fire area is greater than 5,000 square feet.
  • The state fire marshal is responsible for plan review and inspections for fire sprinklers. This is not the authority of DLI per statute.
  • Places of public accommodation are required to be designed by design professional licensed in Minnesota. For example structural and engineer and architects.
  • The state building code is the construction standard throughout the entire state of Minnesota. This has been in effect since 2008.
  • The statute did not change the code requirements for fire sprinklers. One-hundred occupant threshold for sprinkling has been a code requirement for well over 15 years or more. The statute gave authority to DLI only for places of public accommodation in non-code-enforced areas of the state when the occupant load is 200 or more as defined in the statute.

Click here for more information on building codes for wedding venues from the DLI, and click here for their fact sheet on wedding barns.

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