Recording & Red Tape: Recording studio draws code violations; now they want to affect some change

Eric Christenson, photos by Lee Butterworth

I GOT THE IN-STUDIO BLUES. Winona band Sleeping Jesus perform at Toy Car Studios this past fall. Toy Car’s code violations might not allow them to host performances until they have the proper permits and everything is up to code. The studio is looking to add an amendment to the zoning code to make it easier for future events to take place.

This summer marked the first anniversary of Toy Car Studios. Of course, the story of how the recording studio came to be has been pretty well-documented, but it goes like this: Justin Green and his family moved from the hustle and bustle of Austin, Texas to a tucked away spot in the woods just north of Eau Claire – in the Town of Seymour – where he built his dream studio from the ground up.

For Green, going from big city hustle to countryside quiet proved to be a much-needed peaceful adjustment. “There’s something about the woods,” Green told us last year in an interview. “I feel like I finally have a place where bands can feel really comfortable and confident.”

“Just because something hasn’t happened in the past doesn’t mean you can’t make it happen in the future. It doesn’t mean that you can’t work together and help dictate some policy, and work towards something that we can all live with.” – Adam Accola, studio manager, Toy Car Studios

So after a busy year of recording a bunch of songs for different artists, hosting a handful of cool in-studio shows, and getting steadily acclimated to the Eau Claire music scene, Green was feeling pretty good.

To celebrate, there was an event on the calendar for late September out at the studio. And it was called Eauktoberfest.

Yeah, that’s right … Eauktoberfest.

Now, despite the goofy name – which will actually come into play a little later – it looked cool. A really good lineup of eight Eau Claire artists would perform at the studio over the course of like six hours. The bands were booked. The Brewing Projekt was down to sponsor the event. The weather was looking straight up idyllic.

Then mere days before the event, Green opened his mailbox to discover a profound setback.

A letter from the Eau Claire County Department of Planning and Development outlined two critical ways Toy Car Studios was operating in violation of the county zoning code. And if Green didn’t cancel Eauktoberfest and then get the studio up to the proper code in about four weeks, the notice threatened legal action and said Toy Car would have to stop being a business entirely.

The notice read: “The property is operating a studio, considered a home business under Eau Claire County code, without first obtaining the necessary permit(s).” Further down, it says without the right permits, Toy Car would have to “discontinue the business on the property as well as all current/future event(s).”

Green was shocked and disappointed. All this time he had been doing his thing blissfully unaware that there might be some issues with it. And really, the County was similarly unaware that Toy Car was even a thing. So Eauktoberfest had to be canceled in the eleventh hour.

“We were just trying to foster the music scene in Eau Claire and help it move along in different ways,” Green said. “We weren’t looking for a fight.”

The violations were legit. Toy Car simply didn’t have a permit to be operating as a home business, and because the property is zoned residentially, a public ticketed event like Eauktoberfest was another violation of the code.

So how did this happen?

Well, in planning Eauktoberfest (the name’s growing on you now, isn’t it) Green’s studio manager Adam Accola had reached out to the Town of Seymour to figure out how to obtain a basic picnic license so they could sell beer at the event. The Town of Seymour was on board, though they they would have to check on their home business permits and when he found out there was none, he started the application process right away with the County.

Then Accola and Green contacted the Eau Claire Sheriff’s Department to make sure everything was OK on that end. Green recalled a friendly conversation with the sheriff, who was very positive about it and even said he liked Them Coulee Boys, an Eau Claire band slated to perform. “They were really cool and sweet about it.” Green said.

The Town of Seymour had to consult the County Development and Planning Department before issuing a picnic license. An administrator at the department, Jared Grande, did some research about Toy Car Studios online and saw Eauktoberfest listed in our own Volume One events calendar and on Facebook. After looking at the residential zone, the two violations were clear, so Grande sent the notice out.

“They asked ‘What can we do?’” Grande told me. “I said ‘my job is to administer the code, and make sure people are following it.’ But yeah, we’re definitely open to working with them through whatever process they’re going through.”

Meanwhile, the studio is trying to solve the other part … not just for themselves, but also for other studios and space that might try to have similar events.

In the Eau Claire County zoning code there’s ordinances that give special event zoning to big-scale stuff – music festival-size events – but nothing on the scale of an in-studio show. It’s easy to see how the name Eauktoberfest – particularly the “fest” part – could lead one to believe that hundreds and hundreds of people might show up, leading to visions of traffic and parking nightmares and panicked thoughts of where will they all go to the bathroom?

But by the nature of in-studio shows, which have been happening more and more around the Valley in recent years, they’re intimate. It’s part of what makes it a cool and unique way to see an artist perform. All in all you can maybe fit 100 people in Toy Car’s space. It’s 1,500 square feet – not even in the same hemisphere as full-fledged festival-size events.

Moving forward, if the studio’s going to want to host events, Grande laid out two options to pursue, going through the proper avenues – red tape and all.

On one hand, they could petition to change the zoning of the property to commercial. Not ideal, and fairly outside the studio’s scope altogether. On the other, they could make a text amendment to the zoning code to include language that would allow permit-carrying home businesses to host modest-sized events like Eauktoberfest.

Wanting to affect some broader change and hopefully make it easier for future events in similar spaces, Accola and Green are opting for the text amendment option – something along the lines of the following: “Any registered home business may host events on their property that do not exceed the capacity of their space, do not create a hindrance to local traffic or parking, are not excessively disruptive with noise or lighting, and follow all other Town, City, and County policies and procedures.”

So in order to do that, they’ll first have to reach out to their Eau Claire County Board rep and request a text amendment. Their rep, Doug Kranig, will then have to present the idea to the county board. After that, a notice goes out to all the different townships in the county to sift out any notable objections to the changes. If there are a certain number of objections, there will be a formal hearing, and there are none, the amendment could pass.

And it could indeed happen, but things like this take time, for one reason or another. After being approached about the amendment, Kranig warned Accola that the text amendment process could take up to a year or even more. So Accola said the studio is looking for a wave of support from the public to help push the amendment along, whether it’s by writing to the county board in support of the studio being able to host events or by attending future public hearings.

In the name of music, the studio’s wishes could soon become a reality if all the pieces fall together just so. And despite having to issue the initial violation, Grande expressed that his job is to work with everyone involved to find a practical solution when issues like this come up, and his office is in place to help things like this happen.

“I would say that we take pride in that music is something that brings people to Eau Claire. So working with the studio to try to maybe create an ordinance or help establish something in the code to allow this to happen could work,” Grande said. “But we have to make sure, on the flip side, that the neighboring properties are also taken into consideration.”

If the in-studio show is to become a true fixture in the Eau Claire music scene, as it has started to become in recent years, then Toy Car hopes their experience here will set a definitive precedent for future Eauktoberfests and an entire realm of different possibilities for newer events – with even goofier names – to happen in Eau Claire County.

“Just because something hasn’t happened in the past doesn’t mean you can’t make it happen in the future,” Accola said. “It doesn’t mean that you can’t work together and help dictate some policy, and work towards something that we can all live with. That’s what I’m hoping to do is work together to make sure we’re going through the right legal process to make it happen.”

To keep in touch with updates, future meetings, letter-writing campaigns, and more, let your voice be heard by finding and following Toy Car Studios on Facebook.