Barn parties may void insurance: fire official

Monte Sonnenberg

By Monte Sonnenberg, Simcoe Reformer

Some in rural Ontario are balking at the high standard the Ontario Fire Marshal's Office has set for staging social events in farm buildings.

Some in rural Ontario are balking at the high standard the Ontario Fire Marshal's Office has set for staging social events in farm buildings.


Fire officials may be the least of your worries if you decide to hold a family function or social event in your barn or drive shed.

Your biggest concern should be the potential impact of this activity on your insurance coverage. Norfolk Fire & Rescue warns that farmers could be setting themselves up for a nasty surprise if someone gets hurt or something goes up in flames.

“If no one ever complains and we don’t hear about these events, there is no work for us,” Norfolk’s acting deputy fire chief John Verboom said this week. “The biggest thing is to call your insurance company. You may find that, by defying the law, you may have voided your insurance. If any point can be stressed on this, that’s a good message to get out.”

Verboom was responding to a report last week on a new directive from the Ontario Fire Marshal's Office. The directive says farm buildings must meet the safety standards of community halls before they can be used for social gatherings.

Not only must farm buildings meet Fire Code and Building Code standards for community halls and be outfitted accordingly, the Fire Marshal's Office says they should also be zoned for community gatherings.

News of the directive, which was issued May 1, provoked howls of outrage at Norfolk council and elsewhere. Council members commented last week that using farm buildings for social events is a tradition in Ontario dating back to the days of European settlement. As well, there are no documented cases of anyone dying in a fire in Ontario while at a social event in a farm building.

Chris Van Paassen of Port Dover, chair of Norfolk’s agricultural advisory committee, says the fire marshal’s directive is an example of regulatory overkill. It also conflicts with standard farm practices that are protected under the province’s right-to-farm legislation. This includes, Van Paassen suggested, social gatherings in farm buildings.

“A lot of these 150-year-old barns – that’s the first thing that happened in them,” Van Paassen said. “There was the barn-raising and then there was the barn dance. If I want to invite a few friends over and we want to kick our boots off in the barn, I don’t know what business that is of the Ontario fire marshal.”

Larry Davis of Burford, the Haldimand-Norfolk-Brant representative to the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, says dairy clubs, poultry clubs, swine producers, 4-H clubs and other farm associations have been meeting in farm buildings as long as anyone can remember. Many of these groups couldn’t function, Davis said, if they were forced to meet at a Legion or in a community hall.

“Someone is just making rules where none are needed,” Davis said this week. “If the fire marshal is going to be involved, make sure there are fire extinguishers available and make sure there is no smoking. But that’s it.”

Because most every farm building has been used at one time or another for social occasions, Jim McIntosh, Norfolk’s manager of community planning, was asked about the possibility of farms being exempt from zoning provisions regarding social events due to established usage.

McIntosh said a rebuttal based on “legal non-conforming use” is “interesting.” McIntosh noted that the Ontario Planning Act doesn’t allow zoning bylaws that seek to forbid activities where there is an established history.

Liz Marshall, a researcher for the Ontario Land Owners Association, finds the fire marshal’s directive alarming. If applied to the letter, Marshall says it would signal the end of farm tours in Ontario.

Marshall suggested that the Fire Marshal's Office is overstepping its authority. Farms, she said, are private property. As such, they are not subject to state control and in fact enjoy privacy protection under a large body of legislation.

Norfolk Fire & Rescue has no plans to patrol the countryside looking for people having a good time in their farm buildings. Fire officials, Verboom said, will only respond when they receive a complaint.

Monte Sonnenberg

519-426-3528 ext. 150



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