Board denies appeal for Shooting Star Ranch



Despite a 90-minute debate over definitions, intent, interpretation and proposed compromises, a 30-minute deliberation by the Fire Code Appeals Board resulted in the decision to deny an appeal from Shooting Star Ranch regarding required changes and upgrades to meet the fire code.

The hearing, the first of its kind for Williamson County Emergency Services District #4, was held March 14 in front of a board made up of volunteers Aaron Craft, Christian Boyd and Susan Anderson.

At issue was whether the second-floor venue in the renovated barn at Shooting Star Ranch should be required to have a sprinkler system, and that decision hinged on the final determination of the facility’s occupancy classification.

Fire Marshal Keeling Neves determined in his initial inspection of the property in September 2018 that the facility was rated A2 according to Occupancy Classification in the 2006 International Fire Code (IFC). That classification required a sprinkler system that Shooting Star Ranch owners Monty and Shawn Oehrlein said would be cost-prohibitive as they believe their venue was misclassified.

One factor, though, led the Board to its final decision.

“This was hard,” said Appeals Board Chairman Christian Boyd. “It all comes down to whether you are classified as an A2 or A3. That’s really the only thing we can determine. The sticking point for us was ‘the fire area is located on a floor other than the level of exit discharge.’ The area is on the second floor, not the area of discharge. We agree with the Williamson County determination.”

What’s next
The Oehrleins are not satisfied with the outcome of the Appeals Board decision, and have already initiated the next-level appeal.

“Our attorney, Terry Irion, has already sent a letter to Mr. Dan Clark (ESD #4 President), and it is the procedure for initiating an appeal to the Williamson County Commissioners Court,” said Shawn Oehrlein.

She added that she didn’t feel like the appeals process so far has been fair.

“We were hopeful that it would definitely favor all the different alternatives and things we have looked at,” she said. “Definitely this is over-regulation. That’s why we are going to continue forward with it from here. We do feel we will get a fair and reasonable trial as we continue up.

“The three people were handpicked. We were at the meeting when we were told who the three people were picked by Mr. Dan Clark, and that sounded fine, but two of them were fire specialists out of the three.”

The debate
The appeal from Shooting Star Ranch was based on the case put together by the Oehrleins — who were also represented by an attorney and engineer S. Patrick Sparks — and the driving factor was the expense of making the changes directed by the ESD.

“The reason we are here is that it is extraordinarily expensive in a rural area like this to put in a fire sprinkler system,” said the Oehrlein’s attorney, Terry Irion. “It may cost them anywhere from $500,000 to $750,000 and could effectively put them out of business.”

The argument was made that in the case of Shooting Star Ranch, the determination between an A2 and an A3 classification was a judgment call.

“We realize that economic hardship is not a justification or a basis for any kind of appeal, because the goal here is life safety,” Irion said. “Where we do disagree with the fire marshal’s recommendations is that he has classified this building as an A2 occupancy. There is a lot of discretion that goes into the actual decision of whether it is an A2 occupancy that requires sprinklers or it is an A3 occupancy that doesn’t necessarily require sprinklers. It is a judgment call as to what are the properties that support putting it in this higher occupancy classification as opposed to the lower occupancy classification.”

The A2 and A3 classifications are based on areas of assembly. For an A2 classification, the IFC defines it as “Assembly uses intended for food and or drink consumption, including but not limited to banquet halls, restaurants, taverns and bars. An A3 classification is “Assembly uses intended for worship, recreation or amusement and other assembly uses not classified elsewhere in Group A, including, but not limited to…community halls” as well as 16 other specified uses.

“We think there are sufficient differences between the way this property is used and your classic A2 occupancy banquet hall, night club, bar or tavern,” Irion said. “We think this is more like a community hall, which is identified in the code as A3 type occupancy. We just think the A2 occupancy classification is over-reaching, little too aggressive, and given the fact it probably means the difference in staying open and not staying open, you’re erring on the side of over-reaching.”

Issues discussed as playing a role in the final classification included lighting, hours of operation, occupancy limit, and how aisles of egress were defined.

“The question is really not is food or drink consumed, because there is food and drink consumed in both A3 and A2,” said Monty, focusing on the other aspects he said specifically characterize the A2 classification. “Our barn is well lit, there is no time when the lights are off or there is any stage or focused lighting on a band or DJ. In our contract you will find we reserve the right to control the lighting.”

He also addressed noise control, reminding the board that noise restrictions are in their contracts as well, and that shut-down time for all events is 11 p.m. He also argued that the variety of arrangements available for tables did not create a situation of undefined aisles for exit paths.

The two sides also disagreed on potential occupancy.

“By code, and in the Marshal’s letter, I think when you do the calculations based on the area upstairs, 537 standing guests could be in that area,” Monty said. “I can tell you that would be terribly, terribly crowded. We are limiting the capacity up top to 200 people. I don’t care if I can get 300 or 500 up there, I don’t feel it’s safe.”

Neves said determination of occupancy numbers was based on formulas.

“In Chapter 10 of the fire code, there are different formulas you use to determine what the load is in that particular space,” Neves said. “Most fire code officials always go with the number you can fit in. Somebody can say ‘I’m only going to have 50 people in this space, but then you may have a situation where you are going to max it out.”

He added he did not make the decision on classification without consulting other professionals in the field.

“To classify a building as A2 or A3, whatever you have, you have to look at the general criteria that is in the fire code,” Neves said. “I talked to two area fire marshals and one building official about this type of occupancy and they agreed that it was an A2.”

He added that the venue being on the second floor was a critical factor.

“If it was found to be (an A3), Chapter 9 still requires that an A3 be sprinkled if it’s on the second floor or below the first floor to get people out and protect the way out of the building,” Neves said.

The means of egress, and the venue being located on the second floor proved to be sticking points in the discussion. The second-floor venue has two stairwells on opposite sides of the barn that lead downstairs.

“This is something we worked on over the years with structural consultants,” Shawn said. “We actually had it built so that immediately when you come down, the exits go right out. There’s no hallway that you go through, there’s nothing else. The doors swing open and you go right out. We do understand the need of having something also in case of emergency on that second level.”

In an effort to determine a compromise that would avoid the need for the sprinkler system, Shooting Star Ranch met multiple times with ESD officials, offering a variety of changes to satisfy the safety concerns.

“Our main level is on the second floor and you get out on the first floor,” Monty said. “The Marshal is correct that that does technically trip the wire and say sprinklers are required, except for the fact that we have offered to add this stair exit on the second level.”

The proposed third stairwell, which would be outside of the building, would provide an area of refuge and another point of egress.

“Our opinion is that between all three of those stairs, that would meet the intent of the code,” Monty said. “We have offered an automatic fire alarm. The alarm that’s been quoted to us has smoke detection, manual pull boxes, it has got evacuation strobes and horns and it does have the capacity when it’s wired up to shut off everything and that would alert the guests it is time to get out. That is, in our view, something the code doesn’t require, that is above and beyond.”

In a letter from the ESD to the Oehrleins, dated Jan. 25, the proposed compromises were deemed to not be sufficient to avoid the need for the sprinkler system.

Shooting Star Ranch was offered a conditional Certificate of Occupancy pending a number of requirements, one of which was a commitment in writing that a sprinkler system would be installed within 24 months.

“I cannot take cost into consideration,” Neves said. “But I do know that it is a factor for business owners, so I try to balance that. Putting the non-combustible exterior stairs on, making any openings on that wall rated for an hour of fire, and a pull fire alarm system in there, then giving them two years to put in a sprinkler is reasonable in my mind. I’m not a business owner, but we’re giving them time to get that done.”

On Feb. 5, the Oehrleins filed the appeal to the ESD #4 Board, requesting the hearing.

Comparing venues
A list of comparable facilities within the ESD and throughout the county were cited by the Oehrleins as evidence that solutions could be found apart from a sprinkler system.

“We, along with other people being out in the county, we did what we were told, what we were allowed to do, we followed the rules for what we had there, and we have other examples of different people who did the same thing,” Shawn said. “In our ESD there are several different venues, and these are successful economic venues that are doing great in our area and bringing people in.”

She mentioned Reunion Ranch, Angel Springs and Rockpointe Church, which formerly operated as the Beck Chapels & Events Center and Sendero Events Center among other examples.

“All of these places have been able to work out how to have fire safety and life safety met,” she said. “That’s what we want to do, do the same thing, figure out how we can meet life safety.”

Milestone is a local venue with a sprinkler system.

“That particular venue is a very large building, it was built in 2013, and at the time when they went in they did do a whole sprinkler system with the water and the pump,” Shawn said.

Neves said the Milestone venue chose how it wanted to meet the code requirement for a sprinkler system.

“They did not want to spend the money to connect to the water line to run a fire line down to the building,” Neves said. “They have a tank out there, their own fire pump and that supplies the sprinkler system and their own fire hydrant.”

Not only is the installation of a sprinkler system costly, but because Shooting Star Ranch is in the county, there is no water line to the property, meaning the Oehrleins would have to choose the route taken by Milestone, and support a fire-suppression system with an on-site tank.

“(Milestone) had a water line they could have hooked up to off of 29, we do not,” Shawn said. “We have a water line off of 1869 that we are fortunate enough to own some land, and it would be a long line, but we offered to hook up to it. But it is not enough of a water source to get the required flow. We don’t have another source.”

As far as Reunion Ranch and Angel Springs, Neves said those situations were different because they were built before the code was adopted.

“Once you build a building in an area that does not have a code, you’re pretty much, unless you change the use of that facility, add on or something of that nature, able to operate that way until they do something to trigger the fire code,” Neves said.

The Oehrleins began renovating the 100-year-old barn on their property in 2004. In 2016, they decided to open to the public and the first event was held in February 2017.

Monty, who has a civil engineering degree and has worked in commercial construction for 37 years, said much of the work was done by the family, but contractors were involved in a lot of it as well, specifically the plumbing and electrical.

“Early on, when we decided to make this public, we did hire (S. Patrick Sparks), even though I’m an engineer. I said ‘I want you to look and you tell me what needs to be done’,” Monty said.

After having been in operation for more than a year, the Oehrleins got a visit from Neves to conduct a fire inspection on Sept. 26, 2018. Prior to that inspection, the family had not contacted the ESD, saying they were unaware of the need to do so because of their location.

“Frankly, we didn’t understand being out in the country – since there is no building department – we did not know that we needed to go do that,” Shawn said. “We went to the county before 2016, and we got septic permits and we did everything they told us, and at that time we were told that was the only permit that was needed six miles outside of the city limits,” Shawn said. “We did not know we had to go to the fire department, because we would have.”

No explanation was given on why no one at the county level prompted the Oehrleins to contact the ESD.

“There have been some personnel changes at the county level and there have been major improvements in that information flow between the entire county fire departments and the county as far as the requirements,” said ESD #4 Chief Anthony Lincoln. “They were handicapped from that perspective, but we were also handicapped by that, too.”

Shawn said she was shocked to learn all of the things that would be required once she met with Neves.

“I was the one that met him the first day out there, and I have to say it was right after our big grand opening where people came out and we had a great time, and I was so excited to have him out,” Shawn said. “We had bought and put up exit signs and all that and we had all kinds of fire extinguishers. I was excited to know where and what we should do. Life safety is important.”

She said Neves explained to her that based on the ESD response time to the property, without a sprinkler system the facility would burn down before firefighters arrived, and she said she understood.

“This issue isn’t about saving property, it is about life safety and how we can be appropriate and do the right thing about life safety,” Shawn said.

The timeline of meetings or correspondence exchanges between ESD officials and the Oehrleins began in September 2018 and included five in-person meetings.

Good for business?
Prior to the deliberations by the board last Thursday, Shawn spoke on the hardship these required changes would cause.

“This is what we’ve poured, literally, our blood, sweat and tears into,” she said. “We’ve even put money from retirement that could have gone somewhere else into doing this, and we’ve wanted to provide for the community. This is not a business where we are going to be able to pay for this system or get enough money for it in two years.”

Her comments also spoke to what she believes is the greater impact of this decision on business owners in the community, drawing applause from about 35 supporters in attendance.

“It sets something for our county and our area and basically it’s saying if everybody is required to do something to this magnitude, are we going to have small business owners in our area?” she said. “The only ones that can afford it are the large corporations, really. This is us, and this is about us, but this is about more than just us. This is our community and what we’re saying we want for Liberty Hill.

“This is a community hall to us. We want to be an economic boost to Liberty Hill. We want to provide an affordable place for people to have weddings and we want to provide them with places for schools to come and hold events.”

After filing the appeal to the Commissioners Court, Shawn said she has been in contact with other businesses facing similar issues, but declined to name those businesses.

“I think it is important that people realize it is not just us, it is other small businesses being affected,” she said. “We found out about three other small businesses that are varying in types that are having the same issues, where when they meet one part of what’s asked, there is something else that comes out another time and the bar keeps being raised. It will come out, but they are not venues.”