GEARHART — Judge John Orr ruled Monday night that Gearhart’s zoning code lacked rules prohibiting commercial wedding facilities.
With that decision, Neacoxie Barn owner Shannon Smith was found not guilty of charges she was conducting a commercial business in a residential zone.
Smith was answering charges she held two events at the barn in June and August, resulting in two $500 citations.
In September, witnesses testified Smith had been using her property to host weddings without a conditional use permit, which the city said was required.
Witnesses said they had been asked to pay up to $2,600 for use of the barn, or were asked to barter for wedding services.
In arguments presented to Orr Monday, Gearhart City Attorney Peter Watts said Oregon Administrative Rules make it clear weddings are a “commercial activity.”
“The nature of an event, as commercial, maintains that classification regardless of zoning,” he wrote in a memorandum to the judge.
Smith’s attorney Dan Kearns argued the city’s municipal code failed to specifically prohibit renting out the barn for weddings. “The city is bound to fairly advise its citizens of what its code requires and prohibits,” Kearns said.
According to Kearns, local standards were not clear enough to determine if Smith had “violated the standard.”
With 82 short-term rental properties in Gearhart, Kearns said Smith is “renting” her property to guests, an activity unregulated by the city. A conditional use permit to hold weddings was not necessary, he said, because numerous other commercial activities are allowed in Gearhart, without a special use permit, among them, short-term rental of residential property.
“She’s renting her property for short-term use for people who want to have their wedding there, their gathering there,” Kearns said in October.
The city is considering adoption of new regulations of properties offering short-term property rentals. “My client is the only person in Gearhart who needs a certificate of occupancy and a conditional use permit,” Kearns said during the October hearing.
In his finding, Orr said the city ordinance failed to provide adequate guidance to sustain the charges against Smith.
“It appears clear that the ordinance drafters failed to enumerate the numbers of attendees or quality of disruptions to the neighborhood ambiance to convert a permitted use into a conditional use,” Orr wrote in his decision. “This lack of a clear line or definition is a vexing question for the court.”
Gearhart’s zoning ordinance spells out only seven permitted uses by a property owner, but finds “no reference, permission, restriction nor regulation whatsoever for parties, wedding parties, large group gatherings, family reunions, class reunions and the like,” Orr said. “The conclusion this court must reach is that the city drafters had not considered the use when writing the Gearhart zoning ordinance, and therefore had not intended to prohibit wedding parties at residences for future gain.”
In his decision, Orr recommended the city draft an ordinance with “greater clarity.” He urged the City Council to “refine and revise” its residential zoning ordinance in a timely fashion.
Smith faces further violations for unauthorized use from events in August and September, and administrative fines totaling $30,000 administered since 2012.
The next court date, to consider additional $500 zoning violations at Neacoxie Barn in August, is scheduled for Nov. 17.