A long-running dispute between Deschutes County and a Sisters-area landowner over weddings on his property took a new, strange twist last week, after the county sent him a code violation warning for holding church services in his home.
Now John Shepherd says Deschutes County is threatening his freedom of religion and suppressing his right to bring in extra income through the weddings.
Shepherd has had the county’s attention since at least 2011. He was one of several landowners who petitioned county commissioners to allow commercial weddings and other events on land zoned exclusively for farm use.
But after the county tweaked its code in 2012 to allow them, Shepherd ran into additional hurdles. The county granted some permits for owners whose properties are used mainly for farming purposes. Shepherd said the soil on his 216-acre property, 14 miles northeast of downtown Sisters, isn’t suitable for farming, despite being zoned for it.
But he’s been unable to get formal approval for weddings, despite holding them each of the last four years.
Deschutes County Commissioners voted to hold off on any fines against Shepherd last summer, essentially giving him a free pass.
Shepherd, 56, is a pastor. He said he hosts small, nondenominational services out of his home on the property, with about 12 regular attendees.
He said he was surprised and angered by a letter from Deschutes County’s Community Development Department, dated March 18, informing him of “an alleged violation of the County Code associated with your property; specifically, that a church has located at the property without required land use approval.”
The letter has Shepherd fuming. He said he’s emailed a Christian civil liberties group for guidance and calls the notice a likely violation of his First Amendment rights.
“This is one new piece in a series of harassment from the county,” Shepherd said this week. “It’s been going on for three or four years now.”
Community Development Department staff countered that they’re trying to follow state safety guidelines for buildings with a “commercial” use involving members of the public, which a church could fall under.
Planners haven’t looked at Shepherd’s home, Community Development Department Director Nick Lelack said Thursday, and the county wouldn’t move forward with an actual violation until they did. They didn’t know about the church until Shepherd informed them he was holding the services.
“We’re not pursuing any other code enforcement at this point in this case,” Lelack said. The county’s legal counsel “is researching the issues that Mr. Shepherd has raised, so we can better determine whether or not permits are required for his church.”
Meanwhile, Shepherd hosted a full slate of weddings on his property last summer. He said he’s reluctant to cancel weddings planned for this summer, which couples reserved last year. He declined to say how many he scheduled for this summer. But he said he had to turn down two Portland couples who called this week, asking about reservations for summer 2015. He doesn’t see any reason why the weddings shouldn’t be allowed.
“I haven’t had a single complaint from neighbors,” Shepherd said. “This doesn’t hurt anyone.”
Still, Lelack said any commercial weddings Shepherd hosts over the summer would violate county code, though it’s uncertain at this point what steps the county would take. Lelack said county commissioners would ultimately have to decide.
At least one commissioner, Tony DeBone, said he’s interesting in visiting Shepherd’s property. DeBone said the church issue is about building safety, not religious freedom.
DeBone said he hopes Shepherd and the county can reach an agreement on the church and wedding issues.
“I support private property rights and a citizen utilizing those rights,” he said Thursday.
Shepherd said he wants to meet with all three commissioners, or have them visit his property as soon as next month.
— Reporter: 541-617-7820, firstname.lastname@example.org