By Mary Beth Henry, UF/IFAS Extension Polk County and co-leader for Small Farms Extension team
As you may know, non-residential farm buildings are exempt from Florida building codes. That’s great for sheds and barns to house agricultural equipment, however, once those buildings come into use to host the public, questions have surfaced as to which set of rules apply. Add to that the variability based on different interpretations of what should apply and many agritourism operations and local authorities have found themselves in a frustrating position. No one wants to put the public at risk, but requirements for full scale infrastructure investment can seem out of touch for open door barns still in use for equipment out of season.
This March, changes to Florida’s Fire Prevention Code, Florida Statue 633.202, passed to provide some clarity to these questions. Fire code as applied to agricultural buildings hosting agritourism activities has been a serious source of friction. Interpretations varied so widely that some operations were told they would be required to invest tens of thousands of dollars into tanks and distribution systems for fire suppression, while others were given an okay as long as barn doors remain open. Fire officials were also in a difficult position without guidance as to minimum protections required under this new use of agricultural buildings and many felt compelled to stick to the strictest interpretations of requirements in order to protect the public.
The changes in the law created different classes of agricultural buildings with different minimum fire code requirements and directs the State Fire Marshal to develop more specific rules. Pole barns were defined as structures with at least 70% permanently open walls and were exempted from the Florida Fire Prevention Code. After that, the classifications vary with the number of occupants and number of events, and none of these can be used for lodging or residential purposes. Farm buildings used for 35 or less occupants and tents up to 900 square feet are exempted from Florida Fire Prevention Code. Class 1 buildings are those used for hosting events with 100 or less people up to twelve times a year. Class 2 host activities with up to 300 people. Class 1 and 2 are subject to annual inspection but not the Florida Fire Prevention Code. They will, however, be subject to rules to be adopted by the State Fire Marshal.
Class 3 buildings are those used for housing, sheltering or otherwise accommodating the general public and are subject to the full fire code requirements. Those thinking of new construction for agritourism should consider that the agritourism law, F.S. 570.86, specifically states: “An agritourism activity does not include the construction of new or additional structures or facilities intended primarily to house, shelter, transport, or otherwise accommodate members of the general public”.
Another important change is that the new language allows local fire officials some leeway in applying the fire code to existing buildings. It acknowledges that following some fire code provisions line by line may be impractical in existing agricultural buildings and allows fire officials to use reasonable alternatives provided in a national fire protection publication.
A hearing to review proposed fire safety rules language will be held at 1:30 p.m. on June 21 2016 at the Polk State College Public Safety Center, located at 1251 Jim Keene Blvd. in Winter Haven. The rule development process is where the rubber meets the road in the determining the specifics of the final requirements. See the link at the end of this article for a draft of the proposed language.
Read the law yourself here!
2016 Florida Statues 633.202 Section 16
See a draft of the proposed fire safety rules on the Florida Agritourism Association’s Facebook page here.