Stanislaus County wedding ordinance proposal spurned

Everyone agreed that Stanislaus County staff had worked hard on a draft ordinance to allow weddings in agricultural zones. But nobody seemed to like the result.

Even those supposedly speaking in favor of the draft ordinance at a Planning Commission hearing Thursday evening found little to like. Planning commissioners eventually opted to stick with the existing ordinance.

The draft ordinance was drawn up as an attempt to spell out rules for commercial wedding sites in the county's A-2 general agriculture zones. It came about after the county cracked down last year on about a half-dozen wedding venues that were operating illegally in ag zones.

The operators thought they were legal, or at least in a gray area, because the existing ordinance for entertainment events in ag zones didn't specifically prohibit weddings, and enforcement in the past had been lax. At least one, Bloomingcamp Ranch near Oakdale, had been holding weddings for more than 20 years.

But that weddings weren't mentioned in the existing ordinance meant they were not a permitted use, county planning officials said.

The draft ordinance tried to find a compromise by setting up buffers between wedding venues and adjacent properties, and noise standards, hours of operation and other restrictions to make commercial wedding businesses compatible with surrounding agriculture.

In the end, however, it pleased no one.

Neighbors of the venues said the county seemed unable to enforce its existing ordinance. Specifically allowing the events in an ordinance would just make matters worse, they said.

Ranchette owners such as Connie Minter, who lives on Crane Road near Oakdale, said they researched land uses before buying to make sure they were moving into a peaceful, rural area.

Then a neighbor moved in who "illegally started an extremely disruptive and dangerous business," Minter said. "We can't count on a peaceful summer weekend or evening for the past two years," Minter said.

"I would like the Planning Commission to send a clear message that this is an illegal activity that won't be tolerated," she said.

Allen Gilkison, another ranchette owner who lives near a venue outside of Turlock, said he has called the county Department of Environmental Resources and the sheriff for three years to complain of loud noise, traffic and parking problems.

"Now we hear the rules might change to accommodate one group. What's next? A gas station? A machine shop? Then ag goes away," Gilkison said. "I'm very frustrated with the whole process."

The wedding venue operators didn't like the draft ordinance, either.

"I would like to assure all these people in opposition to the ordinance that they have no worries," Joy Bloomingcamp said. "This ordinance puts every one of us out of business."

Bloomingcamp listed several provisions in the ordinance that would be impossible for Bloomingcamp Ranch to comply with, after noting that her property was the largest of the venues and the only one engaged in production agriculture.

Among the provisions she said she couldn't comply with were the 1,000-foot distance from a residence, because her home is 350 feet away; the requirement that the venue not be visible from a road, because Highway 120 is above her venue; a provision that the owner must be the operator, because she leases the wedding venue to the operators of the bakery on her ranch; and requirements for an expensive traffic study, which would erase any profits from the weddings.

Most venues on ranchettes

Most of the venues are on ranchettes with less than 10 acres, which would make the buffers and setbacks impossible.

Amy Irwin, who operates Erwinshire Garden Estates on River Road near Oakdale, suggested the Planning Commission allow weddings, but not receptions, in ag zones. The ceremonies would last 15 to 30 minutes and not include amplified music, alcohol or food, she said. The receptions could be moved to an indoor venue away from the ag zone, Irwin said.

Irwin is a co-owner of the Almond Pavilion in Oakdale, which gives her an indoor facility for the receptions.

After 3½ hours of testimony and debate, the planning commissioners unanimously decided to reject the draft ordinance, stick with the existing one and stiffen the penalties for violations.

Commissioner Ray Souza, a farmer, said he didn't think the ordinance went far enough to protect farmers, who would be liable for drifting pesticide spray. Commissioner Marie Assali, who also operates a farm business, agreed.

"It is a commercial business, it should be in a commercial zone," Assali said of the wedding venues. "I would like to see a strong ordinance that doesn't allow weddings and events in an ag zone of any kind, with strong penalties."

The current fines for violations start at $100 and escalate to $400. The draft ordinance suggested a $2,500 fine for each day of violation.

The commission voted to recommend to the Board of Supervisors that wedding venues be considered as a general plan rezoning request on a case-by-case basis under the existing ordinance. That motion passed 7-1, with commissioner Arsenio Mataka voting against it.

Mataka had said earlier that he would like to have discussed other kinds of events that take place in ag zones.

"More non-ag uses in ag zones cause problems," he said. "The ranchettes already there cause problems, and it creates more problems for us."

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