A permit tug of war has continued to play out this summer for a Sisters-area couple who has been fined more than $2,000 for hosting weddings on their 216-acre property.
Deschutes County code enforcement officials have given out five citations to John and Stephanie Shepherd this summer because their land is zoned exclusively for farming. They’ve held approximately 18 weddings on the property this summer , a violation of county ordinances.
John Laherty, an attorney with the county, said the couple was told in 2013 they needed the necessary permits in order to continue.
The Shepherds have sought approval for their wedding venue for about three years and say the county’s actions have become abusive. It’s not the first time the issue has come up: Weddings and commercial events on agricultural land have been a routine issue for the county since 2008, with some landowners giving up on the process. In 2010, Kelly Brown of Redmond chose to stop holding weddings at her Flying Diamond Ranch to limit legal penalties from the county.
The Shepherds first held weddings on their property in 2011 for members of the church congregation that meets in their home with John Shepherd as pastor. Today, he officiates about half of the weddings on his property. Wedding parties pay about $1,500 to use the property.
Applications for event permits on farmland poured into the county’s community development department in 2012 as the economy improved. County commissioners approved an agritourism and commercial event ordinance in response, allowing some landowners to use their property for events.
The couple applied in 2012 for a permit through the newly approved agritourism and commercial event ordinance, but say they were told it wasn’t applicable for their property.
They went another route and sought permitting for 2 acres of their property for use as a private park. That application was initially rejected because wedding events weren’t considered recreational. After reworking the permit two more times to try and gain approval from the county, the Shepherds estimate they’ve spent about $15,000 in fees.
Nick Lelack, community development director, said the county is working with the Shepherds to resolve the discrepancies.
“We’re putting a lot of resources in cooperation with Mr. Shepherd and working on his application,” said Lelack. “We’re hopeful that all the issues can be addressed and then we can move forward.”
Lelack said private park applications are somewhat rare for Deschutes County.
“We only had one previous application for a private park, for a commercial wedding reception in 1990,” he said.
With wedding contracts established far in advance, the Shepherds continue to have events on their property while their fourth permit application awaits a yet-to-be-determined final decision by county commissioners.
The Shepherds have submitted additional requested materials since August while a wildlife biologist with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is scheduled to inspect the site as well.
“We would comply if we could,” said Stephanie Shepherd. “We can’t. We’re stuck. They’re working very hard with these citations to get us into compliance, but they also know at the same time that there’s nothing we can do about it.”
“I’m feeling bullied by my government,” John Shepherd said.
The county has filed an injunction in Deschutes County Circuit Court seeking to halt 2015 weddings on the property. Laherty said the county has no choice but to seek judicial relief.
“The county tried to work out a resolution of this so that (Shepherd) would agree to not have any of these commercial wedding events without the necessary permits,” Laherty said.
John Shepherd said the couple has stopped advertising for 2015 and has told brides they can’t host future weddings there.
Deschutes County commissioners said in May that the county would not actively block weddings on the Shepherd property, but the county’s legal counsel said any complaints would have to be followed up with code enforcement fines.
Laherty said the county received a written complaint with concerns about the number of weddings that were to be held on the property this summer. Wedding contracts for 2014 were submitted to the county by the Shepherds last year during the ongoing permit application.
County code enforcement officials and Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office deputies came out to the property on five occasions to cite the couple.
Laherty said in order for a citation to be given, the county has to have officials on hand to observe the events, but the Shepherds say guests have begun to complain about law enforcement presence.
The Shepherds’ property is bordered by the Bureau of Land Management on one side and Holmes Road on the other, near Terrebonne. Stephanie Shepherd said they’re careful to wrap up receptions by 10 p.m. and adhere to the noise ordinance.
The couple has court dates in October for the citations. In the meantime, John Shepherd said it cost $252 to submit a response to the injunction filed by the county.
“We’re doing everything we can to comply,” he said. “We are waiting for them. They are taking a long time doing this. While they are dragging their feet, we are being issued citations. That’s just not fair.”
John Shepherd estimates that 18 weddings each summer translates into about $1 million in revenue for the local economy. Up to 2,000 guests each year stay in hotels, buy meals, hire caterers, use local florists and rental companies, he said, creating jobs for county residents.
The Shepherds say they’re hopeful their application will eventually be approved, but say the process shouldn’t be so burdensome.
“If we don’t get through, maybe we’ll make a small dent for somebody else who is trying,” said Stephanie Shepherd.
“If we succeed,” John Shepherd said, “we will have paved the way for other people to create private parks and do more with their land.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7820, email@example.com