By Laurie Tulchin
The advertisement for Dick Schwab’s Celebration Barn, thinly disguised as a March 29 Gazette editorial piece (“Keep the Celebration going”), was so misleading.
For the past decade, Schwab has been building round barns on his 90-acre farm off Sugar Bottom Road near Solon without obtaining any building permits. It is true that Schwab was not required to obtain building permits for any of the barns because he took advantage of the exemption for buildings built on 40 or more acres that are built for “agricultural uses.” But he never intended those buildings to be used that way.
He has constructed a complex of eight barns where he operates a lumberyard, sawmill, laser-engraving facility, cider press manufacturing facility and the Celebration Barn. None of these buildings, including the Celebration Barn, have ever been inspected — no framing, plumbing or electrical inspection; the sewage system is inadequate and the bathrooms would never pass code. The barn would not pass a fire safety inspection, has never been inspected for egress, and does not have a sprinkler system. The Celebration Barn replaced the original “Party Barn,” which burned to the ground in 2007.
In 2006, after operating for years without a permit, Schwab was required to apply for a conditional use permit, which the county Board of Adjustment granted. At that hearing, he said “I don’t intend to lose money” operating the barn, further proof that this was, and always has been, a commercial business operating in a residential zone. His permit allowed him 12 events annually but by 2010, he hosted more than 30 multiday weddings and parties and at that point his neighbors decided they had had enough. What may have started out as a few barn dances has grown into a huge commercial enterprise (how else could he generate $300,000 in charitable donations in five years?), creating a circuslike atmosphere every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from May through November.
Operating the Celebration Barn also violates Johnson County’s zoning ordinance since “events center” is not one of the permitted uses in the Agriculture-Residential district. That Schwab donates a portion of his proceeds to charity in no way should exempt him from complying with the same rules that residents who choose not to donate are subject to. It is unfair to other business owners, doing exactly what Schwab is doing, to be required to build to code, pass inspections, hold liquor licenses, pay commercial property taxes and hire employees while he operates under the radar. Each event he hosts takes revenue away from legitimate businesses that are competing with him for the same dollars.
It is untrue that Schwab has not submitted a request to continue operating in 2012 and beyond. In fact, his pending application is for a five-year special events permit to allow him to host 11 events annually. He has deferred this application until June 15, ostensibly to give him time to consult with his neighbors. This would be a first for him since he has been operating for a decade and hasn’t concerned himself with the impact on his neighbors until now.
The Celebration Barn has become a destination, a tourist attraction, and a nuisance, and his neighbors, including me, are tired of it. We are tired of being written off as the collateral damage from Schwab’s philanthropy.
Now that he has successfully relocated this business to its new location on Highway 1, it’s time for the county to enforce the ordinance and shut down the Celebration Barn permanently.
Laurie Tulchin, an Iowa City business owner, is a 30-year Newport Road resident. Comments:firstname.lastname@example.org