Sporting expansive views of the mountains, the Rockin' B Ranch, a 10-acre private wedding venue located off Powell Butte Highway east of Bend, was the right fit. Being able to pick her own caterers, florists and musicians were just some of the perks of the wedding venue, which also sports a large, attractive earth-toned reception building complete with a bar area, stone fireplace, bridal suite, spacious dining and food-preparation areas. A large patio outside features a wooden arch that not only frames the couple exchanging their "I do's," but also captures Mt. Jefferson in the background.
"I wanted to find a place outside that I felt reflected Central Oregon in my seven years of living there," said Johnson, who currently resides in San Diego. "It is important to me with a lot of people coming in from out of town to give the flavor of Central Oregon."
However, neighbors of rural event venues, such as Rockin' B Ranch, are subjected to varying degrees of car traffic and the noise of music and socializing. What is more, a similar gathering may be convening the next night or the next week, further frustrating some County residents.
Deschutes County, one of the more popular places to get married in the state according to Oregon Marriage Data, is at a crossroads about how to handle the issue. As it stands, events such as weddings are not identified as an allowed use on land zoned Exclusive Farm Use (EFU). Prompted by complaints, the county submitted two letters last year to all vendors that were part of the code action stating that they had until the end of the year to submit a text amendment to allow the use, or cease activity, according to Deschutes County Commissioner Tammy Baney.
A group of rural venue proponents have now submitted a text amendment to allow venues to host events with a conditional use permit. The amendment proposes a "private park" designation with the condition that venues be at least 10-acres in size and host a maximum of one event per day and two events per week running from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. with no outdoor amplified music within 300 feet of a neighboring dwelling. There is a sliding scale of attendees allowed - between 200 to 500 people - depending on the size of parcel.
To the event operators, like Rockin' B Ranch owner Earl Bowerman, weddings are an appealing opportunity to make extra income, support local wedding-related businesses as well as a way to infuse the county with revenue from out-of-town guests. Although he has a full-time job as a business development executive at Intel, the events business supports his farming and livestock operation.
A perfect setting, or a neighbor's nightmare?Bowerman has owned his property since 1994 but has only begun hosting events for the past two years through a leasing system to the interested party-goers, utilizing the same concept as renting out a vacation home, about six times a year. He says he checked in with the county before he built the wedding facilities on his property. "There were no permit regulations to do what we wanted to do," he reported, so Bowerman improved the roads with gravel and built the event facilities.
Nick Lelack, the current county planning director, said neither he nor the staff is aware of anyone asking the Planning Department about permits for events on EFU land - although it may be important to note that Lelack has only been on the job for two months. By law however, any commercial use other than farming would require a special exemption.
Opponent Gladys Biglor lives within two miles of a pair of rural wedding sites and says commercial events shouldn't be allowed on EFU land because they undermine the primary purpose of farmland, increase demands on already strained public services like police and fire, and undermine the solitude that people expect in rural Deschutes County.
Biglor, who lives on land zoned Multiple Use Agriculture east of Bend, spent more than 30 years with the Forest Service. Although her property is zoned for farming, she isn't currently growing anything in her fields. However, Biglor says that she was raised in a farming family and that, "farming and wise use of our land and natural resources is in my blood."
"I firmly believe that (rural weddings) are bad for Deschutes County, the agricultural owners, the agriculture industry and therefore bad for me," she said.
She, and a contingent of others affected by the venues are trying to block the latest text amendment. She questions whether the private park designation sought by proponents fits for-profit wedding venues. Activities on a "private park" are slated for recreational use, and a commercial wedding is not a recreational use, Biglor said. What is more, the language of the amendment is ambiguous when it comes to outlining what kind of events would be allowed, she said. In other words it's a slippery slope from unplugged weddings to concert festivals.
"By not defining the events, the public is hard-pressed to realize the magnitude of this and understand its impacts," she said.
It's not the first time that county residents, staff and private event promoters have wrestled with the politics of outdoors events. Last year a group of neighbors packed a county hearing in an effort to pull the plug on the 4 Peaks Music Festival in Tumalo, which they said did not fit with the rural surroundings. Commissioners ultimately opted to grant 4 Peaks a permit for its multi-day festival over the objections of neighbors and Deschutes County Sheriff Larry Blanton.
Meanwhile rural wedding operators are feeling the impacts of an empty 2009 docket. Kelly Brown, owner of The Gardens at Flying Diamond Ranch, has been in the event business for five years. She hosts an average of 15 events per year, predominately weddings but also birthday and retirement parties. She also runs cattle and horses and grows hay on her 40-acre family farm. Similar to Bowerman, she says the county told her six years ago that she didn't need a permit - only the permission of her neighbors. Those neighbors agreed then and still support her venture today, she said.
Brown said rural land owners in Central Oregon have to be creative in order to preserve the historic uses because cattle and hay are no longer profitable, she said. With rising prices of gas, fertilizer and power, Brown feels like she won't be able to hold onto the farm without the extra income.
"I am scared," Brown said. "This little supplemental business is what is helping us maintain the farm."
On the other side of the fence sits Leslie Ketrenos who owns a five-acre parcel situated near two event venues. For the past two years, she's been subjected to noise from weddings on her neighbors' properties almost every weekend of the summer.
"It's your land and you can do whatever you want was always my philosophy," she said. "But they are taking my rights away to enjoy my own property, and that's where I draw the line."
The Planning Department has rewritten the text amendment proposing a 20-acre minimum for prospective venues and no amplified music. At a public meeting scheduled Feb. 12, a group of proponents called Country Gatherings Associates will address why the county's new parameters are too stringent, Brown said. Meanwhile, the Commissioners say they are trying to find some middle ground.
"I do believe that this is a niche industry in our area but we need to find a balance with quality of life issues," Baney said. "People don't move to rural areas for commercial activity."
The proximity of neighbors, the size of the event, traffic and wildlife mitigation, taking care of details such as no parking on a drain field - all of this needs to be taken into account, she said. Baney does leave the door open to the possibility that there may be some parcels that might fit as a venue, but, she stressed, only if all negative impacts are offset.
"I'm not sold that 20 acres is enough to properly mitigate all impacts to neighbors," she said.
For now, rural event operators, neighbors, and brides-to-be, like Johnson, are in limbo.
"I don't know what I am going to do," said Johnson. "I can't wait much longer - it's mid-February and everything gets planned so far in advance. I'm 35 - it's time to get it done."Complaints about the wedding venues spur a code enforcement case Feb. 2007. County citations venues and shuts down operations.
In early 2008, Jim and Jodi Lopez, who operate Lavender Pond, a 3.69 acre venue on zoned multiple-use agriculture land, submit a text amendment MUA10 in order to legally operate site.
In Nov. 2008, Deschutes County Commission voted unanimously to deny a change in county code.
New text amendment for private parks on EFU submitted by Country Gatherings Association.
EFU text amendment to be reviewed by County Commission.
Upcoming public meeting to hear testimony on the issue on Feb. 12 at 5:30 at Deschutes Service Center, Barnes and Sawyer Room, 1300 NW Bond, Bend.
Text amendment can be found at www.deschutes.org under Land use; pending code amendments, TA-08-9.