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Rise of rustic wedding venues brings zoning, code issues for owners

The owners of Saxon Manor in Brooksville have run into zoning issues with a barn on their property that they plan to use for weddings. We have a handout photo of the interior to use with Barb Behrendt's Feb. 13 story.

Photo credit: Greg Stephens
Published Feb. 12, 2015

BROOKSVILLE — One day last week, Greg Stephens was faced with the unpleasant task of having to mail refund checks to several couples who had planned to be wed at his newly built Shabby Chic Barn on Liberty Street in Brooksville.

While the barn is nearly ready to go, city officials won't allow Stephens to begin using it as a wedding venue.

Both the land use category and the zoning on the site are not what city codes require for such a commercial venture, according to Bill Geiger, the city's community development director. Even if the changes that are necessary go through without a hitch, Stephens won't be able to allow ceremonies there until prime wedding season in June.

For Stephens, who along with his wife, Dorothea, has created a significant economic infusion into the area with the couple's other wedding venue, Saxon Manor, and their purchase of the old Christmas House property, the city's actions seem punitive.

He argues that rules are adjusted all the time. No one drives the speed limit, and rarely do people driving a few miles over the limit get ticketed. Zoning, he said, is to protect neighbors. His only neighbors are his own properties and two abandoned low-income housing projects.

The same use of a barn outside the city limits, he said, requires no such regulation.

As it turns out, that is not true. New, rural wedding businesses are causing issues elsewhere in the county as well.

The county's zoning supervisor, Chris Linsbeck, recently shut down the White Barn Wedding, a wedding venue at a working farm on Powell Road that has been operating for at least the last year and a half, according to Facebook postings.

Linsbeck had not encountered issues with rustic wedding venues before. But after hearing about the events at White Barn Wedding and Brooksville's issues with Shabby Chic Barn, he did some research and found out about two other local venues whose websites advertise their services to couples looking for a unique location to exchange vows.

He said he planned to look into those venues, including one that indicates it has a bunkhouse that allows overnight stays in five rooms with different sleeping configurations and an additional suite. Property appraiser's records show no buildings on that site that match that description.

The weddings at White Barn Wedding came to the county's attention via neighbors, who questioned whether the farm followed the rules in opening their property for weddings and receptions.

Beginning last October, county code enforcement left multiple notices about the possible infraction. In November, the county sent a notice of violation. It told the owners, Michael and Linda Dlouhy, that they were in violation of county code, in that they could not use the site for receptions.

On Jan. 17, a code enforcement officer witnessed a wedding and reception at the property "in violation of agricultural zoning regulations'' and sent a notice to appear several days later. That notice told them there would be a hearing before a special master on March 18. When no response was received, the notice was hand delivered.

Last week the owners met with county officials.

Linsbeck said they will apply for a special exception use permit for places of assembly. The couple will also have to deal with the building department to be sure that the structure meets codes. There might also be questions about serving alcohol at the site, he added.

Neither Michael nor Linda Dlouhy returned phone calls from the Times seeking comment regarding their situation.

Stephens bought his 7.7-acre tract for his rustic wedding venue — adjacent to Saxon Manor in Brooksville — in late 2013. The site was labeled for multi-family residential use. During the permitting process, he identified the construction he planned as a residential storage building, according to Bill Geiger, Brooksville's community development director. A wedding venue is a commercial use, Geiger said.

Appearing before the City Council earlier this month, Stephens said he was seeking a rezoning and reminded council members of the impact that the hundreds of wedding guests using Saxon Manor have had on nearby restaurants, salons, hotels and other businesses.

Geiger told the Times that the city welcomes the business, but "you do have to be compliant with local and state codes.''

Stephens doesn't dispute that, but he wishes the city had more sympathy and would be more willing to help expedite the process because couples who had hoped to wed at the barn now must go elsewhere.

"It's so hard. We booked weddings six months ago that aren't going to happen,'' he said. "It's the start of somebody's life. They don't understand that.''

Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

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