County wedding ordinance spurned

A draft ordinance for outdoor wedding venue businesses on agriculturally zoned property hasn't been a match made in heaven.

Such businesses had operated under the radar of Stanislaus County zoning officials, some for 20 years. Business owners said they were told by county zoning employees not to worry because "everyone was doing it."

But complaints from neighbors of some outdoor wedding venues triggered enforcement by county officials, who say the ceremonies aren't permitted under ag zoning rules. Venue operators found themselves subject to code enforcement actions, including fines, nuisance abatement hearings and, ultimately, an order not to schedule weddings for 2008.

The county is aware of eight wedding venue operations, said senior planner Angela Freitas, but there probably are more.

Several of the wedding operators formed a group, Stanislaus Outdoor Venue Association, and have worked for almost two years to get the county to allow them to continue.

The draft ordinance to allow the wedding venues is a work in progress but has been rejected by association members. The final ordinance should be before the Board of Supervisors by the end of the year or early next year.

"There isn't a single one of us who could possibly meet all these requirements," Joy Bloomingcamp said. "This is another way to say 'No' to us. ... It's clearly designed to put us all out of business."

Bloomingcamp Ranch north of Oakdale has been holding weddings on its property for more than 20 years without a problem, she added.

"It's not designed to exclude those who are out there," Assistant County Counsel John Doering said of the draft. In its current form, he said, the ordinance would exclude many of the venue operators. But the purpose is to make sure surrounding farm operations aren't hampered with traffic, litter and noise from weddings, he said.

"We are trying to balance uses. ... We understand it is a difficult balance," Doering said. "The county is willing to look at opportunities out there, but we see a downside as well. We want to make it tight enough so we don't see an escalation of these kind of things."

Operator sees it as agritourism

Bloomingcamp, who with her husband, Bill, farms 110 acres of apples, almonds and walnuts, sees the weddings as agritourism that brings the county significant revenue.

Out-of-town wedding guests rent motel rooms, eat and shop at local restaurants and stores, she said. Wedding parties hire caterers, disc jockeys or bands, rent tuxedos and buy wedding and bridesmaid gowns, hire photographers, and buy flowers and wedding cakes, she added.

Brides who want an outdoor wedding in a rural setting will schedule it in another county if sites aren't available in Stanislaus County, association members said.

Other counties, including San Joaquin, Fresno and Tulare, have found a way to allow these weddings, association members said.

Freitas said the county surveyed more than 10 California counties and found that ordinances allowing outdoor wedding venues "have been on the books for years, and are not as sensitive to agriculture as an ordinance today needs to be."

The association members take issue with several provisions in the draft ordinance, including:

A requirement that the wedding venue be a parcel of at least 40 acres. Most of the wedding venue businesses are on ranchette parcels, generally 20 acres or less. "It doesn't take 40 acres to have a wedding," Bloomingcamp said. Doering said the parcel size allows for a buffer to protect surrounding farms.

A requirement that venues can't be enrolled in the Williamson Act, which gives tax breaks to farms in exchange for a pledge to keep the land in farming for at least 10 years. Bloomingcamp Ranch and some other venues are under the Williamson Act. The Bloomingcamps have applied to take five acres out of the act, but it takes 10 years to get out of the requirements.

Joy Bloomingcamp argues that the county can ask the state for a waiver, which have been granted in other counties.

Doering said the weddings have no relationship with agriculture, and the venues should not get the tax break.

A provision that applicants may have to provide a traffic study. Bloomingcamp said the study would cost an estimated $15,000 to $50,000, obliterating any profit the business might generate. Doering said the studies would be required if, for example, county Public Works or the California Department of Transportation asks for one.

A requirement that the venues can't be visible from adjoining streets, and that a 6-foot-tall wall must be built along borders with adjoining parcels. Bloomingcamp's venue sits below Highway 108 and is visible from the road.

Doering suggested they could plant tall trees to block highway views. A wedding ceremony could distract drivers on a dangerous stretch of highway, he said.

Bloomingcamp and other venue operators see the weddings and events as a way to preserve small farms by adding revenue. Although her ranch doesn't need the revenue, it helps maintain the park setting on the property that is available to the public for free, she said.

County officials see the events as a threat to serious farming operations, creating noise, trash and traffic and disrupting spraying schedules.

County board chairman Bill O'Brien, whose district includes many of the wedding venue businesses, is trying to soften some of the harsher provisions of the ordinance.

"There are things in there I'm not happy with," he said. "In general, it's too restrictive. I'm working on ways to make it allowable but still protect agriculture."

Bee staff writer Tim Moran can be reached at tmoran@modbee.com or 578-2349.