Denise Seymour on Tuesday invited Stanislaus County supervisors to a wedding. It wasn't as friends of the bride or groom, though. She wants them to see the venue she provides for weddings.
Seymour made an emotional plea to the supervisors to let her book weddings next year on her property on the Stanislaus River near Oakdale. If she doesn't get permission before Oct. 8, she said, her home will be foreclosed upon in Bankruptcy Court.
"I want you to see for the first time why I fell in love with the property," she told the supervisors. "I want you to see my beautiful sunset, my marble altar over the Stanislaus River."
Seymour said she is caught in a legal limbo that she believes the county has created. Outdoor weddings on farmland aren't allowed under county ordinances, but the county hasn't enforced the laws, Seymour said.
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She bought her property two years ago and went to the county Planning Department in May 2005 to be rezoned in order to hold events on the land. She was told to get a civil engineer and submit plans, which she did; it took about seven months.
Seymour started making improvements on the property before her rezoning request was approved, building an outdoor chapel overlooking a bluff, concrete and crushed granite pathways, 35 arbors for a wedding party to dine beneath, serving areas, a dance floor, restrooms and parking for 300 cars. She estimates that she has invested $700,000 in the property, including a down payment on the land and improvements.
She began booking weddings, and held 15 before a neighbor's complaints triggered county inspections.
The county issued a cease and desist order to Seymour and several other farm event venue operators on June 29, 2006.
Seymour and several other property owners formed Stanislaus Outdoor Venue Association in July 2006 to get the county to allow weddings and other events on farmland. The county asked the group to research similar counties that allow such events. They submitted a report on July 15 on Tulare, Fresno and San Joaquin counties, each of which found a way around prohibitive ordinances, Seymour said.
"All three used different angles, because the boards wanted it to work," she said. "They felt (outdoor) weddings were good for the community and the economy."
Constance Robinson, a member of the association, said county officials seem worried that there will be weddings "all over the place" if an ordinance allows it. But she said other counties that allow events on ag land don't seem to have a problem with it.
Political fund-raisers often take place on farmland and aren't cited, Robinson and Seymour said, but both say they have been fined by the county nuisance abatement board for holding events for their own families.
Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini said the political fund-raisers are different because they aren't a commercial business and take place on larger properties so that they aren't visible from the road.
Size of property the problem
Stanislaus County came up with a proposed ordinance, Seymour said, but it was too restrictive: Events had to be on parcels of at least 40 acres that were not in the Williamson Act. Seymour's property is less than five acres and Robinson's is less than eight acres.
DeMartini said that the small size of the properties is a big part of the problem -- making the events more visible and disruptive to neighboring farms.
County inspectors red-tagged Seymour's property in September 2006 for safety issues that included electrical and sewer problems. She described them as wiring that was flexible conduit rather than rigid pipe and restrooms that didn't have enough room between the sink and wall for handicapped access.
When she applied for a building permit to fix the problems, county officials refused to grant her one, because it would be tacit approval of her plans to hold weddings on the property.
"We cannot authorize a building permit for a use that's not permitted," Assistant County Counsel John Doering said.
The red tag was sent to Seymour's mortgage company, which notified her that it was a problem in January of this year.
Seymour found she was unable to sell or refinance the property. She couldn't book any more weddings, which curtailed her income from the property.
The reasons for the county's strict enforcement on the issue are subject to debate.
At a meeting two months ago, County Counsel Michael Krausnick said the county had received complaints of traffic, noise and trash after events were held on farmland. It also got complaints from businesses that host weddings outside of agriculturally zoned land, who felt the practice was unfair competition.
Robinson said dumped trash is a constant headache for all farmers, but wedding venues arrange for caterers and portable rest- rooms and keep the venue clean.
Complaints of beer bottles strewn along the road don't make any sense, Seymour said, because the weddings typically have beer kegs, not bottles.
Some members of the group have operated for 20 years without a problem, Robinson said.
County Board Chairman Bill O'Brien said Tuesday that Seymour's situation is unfortunate but one she created herself.
"Basically, she started a business that was not permitted and not legal, and is blaming the county for not allowing it," O'Brien said. "Every business owner knows you have to have a business license to operate."
The county is trying to formulate a set of regulations to allow the outdoor events, O'Brien said, but it will take several months to work its way through the planning commission and Board of Supervisors.
"We are in the tough situation of shutting her down. We allowed her to operate through the 2007 season, and now she wants permission to operate during the 2008 season," O'Brien said.
Seymour filed a Chapter 13 personal reorganization bankruptcy petition May 16. She had just $8,000 in debt, but she didn't have enough income to pay her mortgage, Seymour said.
She is asking for permission to hold 35 weddings next year, from April to October. They would last from 4 to 10 p.m., Seymour said, to limit the impact on neighbors.
The new county rules could be in place for the 2008 season, O'Brien said, but they won't be in time for Seymour's bankruptcy hearing.
Bee staff writer Tim Moran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2349.