The Austin Chronicle

True Love and Lawsuits in the Wedding Capital of Texas

'Til death do us party

By Kate Groetzinger, April 27, 2018, News

All Gregory George wanted was some peace and quiet. In 2013, the 41-year-old former Texas General Land Office agent and his wife Staci bought a 10.8-acre plot just outside of Dripping Springs, in a development protected by residential-only deed restrictions. Their plan was to build their dream home and start a family. But that dream turned into a nightmare, George said, when his neighbors decided to open up a wedding venue right next to his new home. Now, he spends his days meeting with lawyers, and nights canvassing his property line with a sound meter.

According to George, his neighbor Jani Saliga came over three days before he poured the foundation for his house and told him she was planning to turn her existing home into a wedding venue. George was surprised: His property came with a neighborhood covenant that prohibited commercial business, and he was told by his real estate agent and his title company that it applied to the properties on both sides of his lot. Saliga, however, says she was unaware of any deed restrictions on her property. George went ahead and built his home adjacent to Saliga's, on the highest point on his lot, sure the covenant would work. Saliga and her husband also proceeded with their plan, turning their home into what is now the Garden Grove Wedding and Event Venue.

When they began to host weddings in April of 2016, tensions escalated between the Georges and the Saligas. The weddings, which George claims sometimes include live bands that play until midnight, occur about 250 feet from his back porch. George and the neighbors who live on the opposite side of the Saligas' property filed a lawsuit against them and Garden Grove to enforce the residential-only covenant in June of 2016. The trial was held the following May, and George and the other neighbors lost on a technicality: The developer's name was misspelled in the original covenants, excusing the Saligas' title company for not alerting them to the restrictions.

Right after that, George heard about a public meeting hosted by Mark Black and his father Terry, of the Black barbecue family, regarding their plan to turn a property they owned in the Dripping Springs area into a wedding venue. Although the property belongs to Black Market Investments, a business entity owned by Terry Black and his sons, Mark has led efforts to develop the property. At the meeting, which was held at the Driftwood Firehouse in July of 2017, Mark told those in attendance that he was planning to build two 300-person wedding venues on a 64-acre lot right next to three residential developments: Radiance, Goldenwood, and Golden­wood West.

The developments were built in the Eight­ies and early Nineties and have deed restrictions forbidding commercial business, just like the covenant that came with George's land. But the Blacks' property is located right outside of the restricted area, so he is free to build whatever he likes. Still, in order to break ground, the Blacks have had to go through a series of steps to get approval from the city of Dripping Springs and Hays County before receiving a permit to build their venue. When George, who can see Goldenwood West from his backyard, heard about this, it got him wondering how his neighbors were allowed to turn their home into a 400-person wedding venue, as well as build cabins in their backyard, without permits or permission from the city.

"I feel sorry for those people who live next to the Blacks," George said. "But I believe in property rights. If you have unrestricted land you should be able to build whatever you want."

Still, if the Blacks had to get a permit, why not the Saligas? George and his neighbor decided to look up site plans or permits for Garden Grove, but they couldn't find any except for a building permit for the Saligas' original home. It turns out, until they started asking questions, the City of Dripping Springs was not aware of the venue.

Garden Grove, like the Blacks' property, is located in the city of Dripping Springs' extraterritorial jurisdiction, or ETJ, which means its owners need permission from the city to do certain things, like create impervious cover. The Dripping Springs ETJ is over four times the size of Dripping Springs itself, according to Ginger Faught, deputy city administrator for Dripping Springs. The extra-large ETJ is the result of a land grab made by Austin back in the Eighties, when rural property owners opted to be part of Dripping Springs' ETJ rather than become part of Austin's ETJ. Now the area is one of the fastest-growing in the country, and Dripping Springs' tiny city staff is charged with overseeing all of it. Faught said because of the size of the ETJ, the city relies on neighbors to bring potential violations to its attention.

As an event venue located in the ETJ, the only rule the Saligas must follow regarding sound is the state-sanctioned limit – 85 decibels at their property line – which they tend to operate well below. So long as the city doesn't find some small cabins the Saligas have built for overnight guests to be unpermitted impervious cover, it appears the Saligas are within the law. They say they have held fewer than 20 weddings over the last two years, that most events end by midnight, and that they've built a sound-insulated party room for overnight guests who want to celebrate beyond that time. This has done nothing to appease George, who the Saligas claim has interfered with business at Garden Grove by mowing his lawn and playing what they refer to as "mariachi music" during wedding ceremonies. These complaints are outlined in a countersuit filed by the Saligas against George and his neighbors in the Hays County Court.

"We've done everything we can to make sure we don't bother him, and he just won't stop," said Saliga. And George isn't giving up: He has appealed the lower court's decision regarding the neighborhood covenants, convinced they still apply to the Saligas' property.

A Blessing and a Curse

According to the Dripping Springs Cham­ber of Commerce, which trademarked the city as the "Wedding Capital of Texas" in 2014, there are now over 35 wedding venues within a 20-mile radius around Dripping Springs. Sherrie Parks, president and CEO of the chamber, estimates over 4,000 weddings take place annually in the area, driving hundreds of thousands of dollars of revenue to local businesses. Of course this comes at a price: There now exists a litany of lawsuits just like the one the Georges filed against Garden Grove awaiting word in the Hays County Court.

Vista West Ranch, one of the oldest wedding venues in the area, recently came under attack by its neighbors after operating successfully for 10 years. Located just outside of the Dripping Springs ETJ in unincorporated Hays County, Vista West Ranch is actually the name of a neighborhood that was developed in the Eighties. Brian Pearson and his wife Cindy bought one of the first lots in the development over 20 years ago, according to their daughter Stacey Hogge, who now runs the venue with her husband Joe.

Gary Simanton and Bill Garza are two other Vista West residents who've lived there since the Pearsons decided to get into the wedding business. The early residents of the neighborhood were all friendly, according to Garza, who said he used to catch up with the Pearsons over a beer or at a neighborhood barbecue every once in a while. In 2008, Brian Pearson approached Garza and the other neighbors to ask for their blessing to turn his barn into a wedding venue. Garza said Pearson told everyone that the residential-only covenants were no longer valid, and they gave Pearson consent to start his business without asking too many questions.

The business was fine at first. Garza even DJ'd some of the weddings and rented out the venue to get married there himself. Garza's neighbors, Gary Simanton and Renee Lyon, rented out a cabin on their property to the Pearsons' wedding guests through Airbnb. Simanton said he didn't initially want to rent out the cabin, but Brian Pearson asked him and he acquiesced. Both Simanton and Garza said the Pearsons were respectful, and the weddings were rarely loud.

But then Stacey and Joe started taking over the business. In 2014, the Hogges and the Pearsons bought the property on the other side of Simanton and Lyon's home. Brian Pearson and Joe Hogge worked together, building out a second wedding venue called the Creek Haus, with overnight lodging for up to 70 guests. About halfway into the project, Brian Pearson suffered a stroke and died.

The Hogges went on, finishing the Creek Haus in early 2015. They hosted their first wedding there over Memorial Day weekend 2015. Then, during a wedding the following Labor Day, the bride and groom arrived via helicopter, which upset Sim­an­ton and Lyon, and the guests at this wedding, the Hogges admit, were loud and disrespectful. After that, the Hogges put strict rules in place for guests at the Creek Haus, but it was too late. A few months later, Joe Hogge got in a fight with Lyon about the cabin she and Simanton rented out to guests, according to the Hogges. They stopped recommending the cabin to their guests, and Simanton and Lyon filed a lawsuit against them claiming their business is a nuisance to the neighborhood. Later on, Simanton said, his lawyer found out the Vista West covenants are, in fact, still valid. Now, he and Lyon are suing the Hogges to shut down both venues.

Stacey Hogge maintains that she and her husband follow "country law," which she defines as respecting your neighbors whether or not you have a legal obligation to do so. They say they keep all amplified music indoors and shut it off by 11pm. They even bought property with access to the main road in front of the Creek Haus so they wouldn't have to use the road that runs through the neighborhood. After finding roofing nails strewn across the private driveway to the Creek Haus, the Hogges put up motion-activated game cameras to catch anyone who comes onto their property.

On the first day of April, after a blue moon on March 31, three stick figures appeared on the fence between Simanton and Lyon's property and the Creek Haus. Stacey Hogge said she believes they are voodoo hexes, placed there by Lyon and Simanton to curse them or to scare their guests. A few days later, one of the Hogges' game cameras caught a picture of Lyon posing with one of the figures and grinning into the camera.

Noise Free Texas

It's pretty much impossible to shut down a wedding venue in the Dripping Springs ETJ or unincorporated Hays County once it's up and running, according to Kimly West, who lives next to the Memory Lane Event Center. Like Vista West Ranch and Garden Grove, Memory Lane is outside the tiny Dripping Springs city limits, so no local sound or zoning ordinances exist to mediate disputes between the venue and its neighbors when things go awry.

Fed up with the noise coming from Mem­ory Lane, West started a petition in 2010 called Noise Free Texas aimed at lowering the legal limit on sound in the state of Texas from 85 to 60 decibels. For context, the former is comparable to the noise inside a nightclub, whereas the latter is akin to a loud restaurant.

West collected around 400 signatures, then approached state Rep. Jason Isaac, who represented the Dripping Springs area at the time, and asked him to write a bill to change state law to reduce the maximum allowable sound level to 60 decibels. He agreed and introduced the bill to the House. People from the Dripping Springs area came to testify, but it died in committee. "Being a novice in the Legislature, I thought it would work," she said. "But the three lobbies that have wrapped up our Lege are alcohol, development, and oil and gas. And those three lobbies want to have 85 decibels for their operations." She tried again in 2013, but the bill suffered a similar fate.

Then, during the 2015 legislative session, Isaac turned around and authored a resolution to make Dripping Springs the official "Wedding Capital of Texas." This passed and has led to the continued growth of the events business in the area for the past three years. Now people like Gregory George, Billy Garza, Rene Lyon, and Gary Siman­ton are finding out what Kimly West has known for a while: There is no legal protection, save deed restrictions, for residents who live next to wedding venues outside the city limits of Dripping Springs. "Even if the neighbors complain, there's no way to stop it. And that was shocking," said West.

This is because in the unincorporated areas of the state and in cities' ETJs, the counties do not have what is called "land use authority," so anything can be built anywhere, absent deed restrictions placed on properties by developers. The counties require businesses to obtain a permitted septic system, and the city of Dripping Springs regulates impervious cover and stormwater runoff through site plan approval for structures built in its ETJ. But there's no mechanism to stop a business from operating in a residential area if it complies with these standards.

Hays County Commissioner Ray Whisen­ant points to an extreme case, in which a cement plant was built next to a residential neighborhood outside of Dripping Springs, in unincorporated Hays County. Legally, he said, there was nothing he could do to stop it once the project plan complied with water and waste codes. If the city or county refuses to approve a site plan that's in compliance, then the city or county could end up being sued, according to Whisenant. "There needs to be some ability for counties to define land use," he said. "I don't have an exact answer, but it does need to be addressed."

But while a change may be needed, one is unlikely to occur. The only way cities and counties can get land use authority is through the state Legislature, according to Faught. She said some sort of land use authority bill is introduced every session, but none is likely to pass, given Texans' obsession with property rights. Add in the pro-development interests West went up against at the Capitol, and it's even less likely that city or county officials will have a say in what is built where in the Dripping Springs ETJ or Hays County any time soon.

Nice Day for a Black Wedding?

Mark Black brought all of these issues to light when he decided to build two 300-person wedding venues on his property. He could have built a big house on the lot, then turned it into a venue, as the Sali­gas did, and avoided most of the process he has had to go through. But Mark Black's plans are bigger: He wants to build the biggest and best wedding venue in the "Wed­ding Capital of Texas." He said his business philosophy is to go wherever people are already doing something the best and do it better. "That's what my dad did with barbecue in Austin," he said of his father's spot on Barton Springs Road, "and that's what I'm going to do with weddings in Dripping Springs."

Black's plan has been subjected to close scrutiny from every level – from the city of Dripping Springs to the state of Texas – due to the special nature of the land he purchased. His 64 acres are located in the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone, which means its watershed feeds directly into the water source for millions of people in the Hill Country, as well as for Barton Springs.

Many of the residents of Radiance, the closest development to the Blacks' property, see themselves as docents of this environmentally sensitive area. The development was started in the Eighties by a group of Transcendental Meditation™ practitioners who moved out to the country to be surrounded by nature and meditate three times a day. They know every creek and rivulet on their property and understand how they contribute to the aquifer. So when they heard about Black's plan to develop 6.4 acres of his property – the maximum 10% allowed by the Texas Commission on Envi­ron­mental Quality – they were more than concerned; they were downright mad.

On Feb. 19 of this year, residents of Radi­ance and the other neighborhoods surrounding the Blacks' property showed up in front of Terry Black's Barbecue on Barton Springs Road to protest the proposed wedding venue ahead of a Dripping Springs City Council meeting to approve Black's site plan. They carried signs that read "No Mark Black Wedding Venue," "We <3 Good Neighbors," and "Commit Now! Fire Safety!" The protest was organized by the Friendship Alliance, a neighborhood group for residents of Radiance, Goldenwood, and Gol­den­wood West.

Dr. Carlos Torres-Verdin, a professor in the Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering at UT, is the president of the Friendship Alliance. He lives on one side of the Blacks' property, in Radiance, and his back porch looks out over one of the 300-person venues the Blacks plan to build.

Torres-Verdin and the Friendship Alliance organized what he calls "a fact-based campaign" to document the issues with the project. Not only will the project have a negative environmental effect, he says, it will also put the safety of their community at risk. The property is off of FM 1826, on Crystal Hills Drive, at a junction that leads to Radiance and Goldenwood West. Crystal Hills Drive, at 20 feet wide, is not wide enough to have a center stripe. In the event of a wildfire, the Black Ranch would significantly slow down an evacuation, many of the neighbors worry.

The Friendship Alliance assembled a group of specialists, including a firefighter and a civil engineer from the neighborhood and a traffic engineer from UT-Arlington, to review Black's plan. These specialists assessed the risks posed by the proposed venue and prepared presentations for the Dripping Springs Planning and Zoning Board, which had first pass at the plan on Jan. 23, 2018. Eighty-four people signed up to testify against the project at the meeting, then ceded their time at the microphone to Torres-Verdin, who called up the Friendship Alliance specialists one by one.

Brian Dudley, a civil engineer from Goldenwood, made the case that the plan violates the existing water quality ordinances set by the city of Dripping Springs. He said Black's engineers at Kimley-Horn treated the site as a single watershed in their calculations, completely ignoring a creek that runs along one side of the property. "Usually this is not a big deal, but in this aquifer recharge zone it is a big problem," he told the board. Traffic engineer Dr. Siamak Ardekani assessed the impact the project will have on traffic, saying that it would take almost an hour to evacuate the Black Ranch alone in an emergency, and that the number of cars the ranch will add to the road on a daily basis exceeds the level of service criterion for county roads set by the state of Texas. "My recommendation is to reduce the size of this project to half of what is proposed," he said.

Cristian Granucci, a firefighter with the Los Angeles County Fire Department who spends half the year at his home in Radiance, cited a fire that happened in 2006 in the neighboring Rim Rock development that forced Radiance and Goldenwood to evacuate. According to Granucci, the fire started at a construction site and burned 950 acres. He also cited a fire that burned 1,000 homes in Bastrop. "This doesn't just happen on the West Coast," he said. "This could happen here in our backyard."

Dripping Springs City Engineer Chad Gilpin demurred when asked to respond to these claims. The only factor the city has a say in is water quality, and he said he found Black's plan to be in compliance. The Plan­ning and Zoning Board voted to approve it.

We <3 Good Neighbors

After passing Planning and Zoning, Black Ranch went before Dripping Springs City Council for approval in mid-February. Prior to the meeting, the Friendship Alli­ance hired two outside engineers to review the water plan. Lauren Ross, an engineer who worked with Austin's Save Our Springs Alli­ance, found the plan only removed 74% of phosphorus, well below the 90% requirement under the city of Dripping Springs' water quality ordinance for the recharge zone. She sent a letter to Council detailing her findings. Erosion expert Jeff Kessel also reviewed Black's plan; he found that the runoff from the parking areas and roads Black is proposing to build will erode the hillside leading down to the creek, causing flooding in the neighborhood later on. The city of Dripping Springs hired their own outside engineer to review the plan, drainage expert Tom Hegemier, who disagreed with Ross and Kessel. He confirmed the work of Gilpin, who had previously deemed the plan to be in accordance with city water ordinances.

Faced with conflicting reports from either side's expert engineers, the City Council tabled the controversial item in February, saying they needed more time to review it. They met again on March 13 to vote on the plan. Over 150 people packed into City Hall for the meeting. The fire marshal was on hand to monitor the crowd, most of whom were from Goldenwood, Goldenwood West, and Radiance. Many held signs; others prepared speeches.

Council allowed public comment on the plan, which lasted over an hour. Bob Logan, who owns a property neighboring the Blacks' land, said he heard from Mark Black that he plans to start a restaurant there, in addition to the wedding venue; Black and his lawyers, who were present at the meeting, did not contest this. Paul Frels, one of the founding members of Radiance, reminded everyone what was at stake. "For over 30 years, I've been able to walk outside, and I look up and I see the stars, and I see the moon, and I hear the sounds of nature," he said. "Once that's gone, it's gone." The crowd broke out into applause.

Mark Black's uncle, Kent, also spoke, and explained that he and his business, the Original Black's Barbecue (with locations in Lockhart and on Guadalupe), are financially independent of Terry Black. Then he implored his nephew to do the right thing. "Work with the neighbors, be a good neighbor, treat the neighbors with dignity and respect, and work together for the common good," he said, to the delight of the audience.

At the end of public comment, Mayor Todd Purcell addressed the energized crowd. "Believe me, I sympathize with you all. I'm dealing with this on a personal level. But I can't ask this Council to break the law for y'all. I don't know how we're gonna vote tonight. But I can tell you, Mr. Black, I will never get married there," he said, drawing a hearty laugh and round of applause. Purcell's parents live next to Memory Lane and were involved in a 2010 lawsuit against the venue.

Finally, the mayor put it to a vote. Only three of five of the City Council members were present at the meeting, apparently due to spring break, and two of them voted to approve the plan. Wade King, the only CM present who is up for re-election this year, cast the lone dissenting vote.

The Honeymoon Is Over

When you choose to live in an unincorporated area like the Dripping Springs ETJ, you take a risk on who or what will be your neighbors. The best-case scenario is that the people who live near you will be respectful and helpful in times of need, said Jeanine Christensen, secretary of the Friend­ship Alliance. "You've probably seen me with my sign that says 'I love good neighbors,'" she said. "That's not a platitude. That's the real deal."

She recalled the 2006 Rim Rock fire, when she received a robocall on her landline telling her she had half an hour to evacuate. She knew that many of her neighbors did not have landlines and may not have received the call, so she knocked on people's doors on her way out of the neighborhood to warn them about the evacuation. "I took dogs and cats from other people's houses and put them in my car on the way to pick up my kid at kindergarten," she said. "That's what it's like when everyone is honorable."

According to Torres-Verdin, the Blacks have thus far not been honorable. Torres-Verdin said Terry Black told him and his wife that the Black family was planning to build cabins for personal use on the property when they first bought it. Torres-Verdin extended a neighborly welcome to Terry and his family, inviting them over for lunch or lemonade, but they refused. Torres-Verdin said he did not hear from the Blacks again until the neighborhood meeting at the Driftwood Firehouse, at which Mark Black informed everyone that he was going to build a wedding venue on the property. "The most troubling thing about this is that there are many neighbors who live adjacent to his property and he never had the humanity to call any of them," Torres-Verdin said.

The size and design of Black's venue pose a real risk to both the neighbors and the environment, according to the traffic and drainage experts hired by the Friend­ship Alliance. The plans for Black Ranch also include a 2,000-square-foot kitchen, which could very well belie a future barbecue restaurant. Black also said he plans to start an organic farm and a beekeeping operation there, and hold farming and cooking workshops during the week. Although Black made no mention of these alternative uses at City Council, there are no laws forbidding him from doing whatever he wants once the structures on his property are built.

Bill Foulds was one of the two Dripping Springs City Council members who voted for the project. He said he did so against his will. "I don't think anyone on the dais thought that this was necessarily a good thing, but we were left with no choice," he said. "I would have liked to change it to make it comply with city ordinances. But since it's not in the city limits, we do not have the right to do that." Were Council to deny Black his permit, Black would have grounds to sue the city. Foulds said this was the main factor in his choice to approve the site plan. "It's not fair to the people who live inside the Dripping Springs city limits and pay taxes to foot the bill for a lawsuit out in the ETJ," he said.

If this is the way Dripping Springs City Council makes decisions, then no one in the ETJ is safe, says Torres-Verdin. "Sometimes, I make this joke that if the PM of North Korea wanted to build a weapons factory in the ETJ they would be able to do it," he said.

While this has caused problems for people living in the ETJ, it's a potential problem for people in Austin too. "Almost all of the city of Dripping Springs ETJ is either in the Barton Springs Zone or else upstream of the city of Austin's drinking water supply," said Ross. She worked with the Save Our Springs Alliance to pass strict water quality ordinances in the city of Austin that require the removal of all pollutants in runoff from new developments. Dripping Springs only requires 90% removal of specific pollutants – and failed to enforce even that, according to Ross, in the case of the Black Ranch. As one of the fastest-growing areas in one of the fastest-growing counties in the country, Dripping Springs is being developed awfully quick. And as everyone who's tried to stop a wedding venue in Hays County knows, once development happens in Drip­ping Springs, there's no going back.

This story has been updated. Brian Pearson died after suffering a stroke, not a heart attack. And the helicopter wedding at Creek Haus was on Labor Day weekend in 2016, not Memorial Day weekend in 2015.

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