Commentary: For weddings in Hays County, count on guns and roses

Gregory George, 41, is a former Texas General Land Office right-of-way agent. His wife Staci, 38, is a financial adviser in Austin. Until recently, they lived in a 1,400-square foot home in Manchaca.

In 2013, they bought 10.9 acres of land on FM 967 between Buda and Driftwood.

“Our dream always had been to buy a little piece of acreage in the country and raise our family,” said George.

The Georges’ slice of paradise is a tract 350 feet across and more than 1,200 feet deep, rising through oak, juniper and pecans, sloping to Little Bear Creek. Deer, turkey and pigs roam the land.

Three days before they poured the slab on their new home in 2016, George said, his neighbor Jani Saliga paid a visit and announced she was converting her home – about 125 feet away — into a wedding chapel and special events venue.

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On many a Saturday afternoon or evening, Garden Grove LLC – its main house, upper and lower greens, party barn and tent – fills with 200 to 300 celebrating guests.

There are live bands and laser-light shows. Professional, three-minute fireworks shows begin as late as 11:30 p.m. And DJs sometimes play until 2 a.m., George says. Buses idle 150 feet from the Georges’ house.

George, who stays at home with sons Lowry, 2 and ½, and Rhodes, 4 months, is not happy. “The fireworks are awful. The ability to sell my property has gone away. We feel like we are prisoners.”

The Georges and neighbors on the other side of the wedding venue went to court in May 2017, complaining that Garden Grove was in violation of deed restrictions prohibiting commercial use of the property.

Hays County District Court ruled in favor of Garden Grove’s owner. When Jani Saliga bought the tract for $189,000, the court said in its findings, the documents were defective. The previous owner was not correctly identified because of a scrivener’s error — a typo — which meant the “chain of title” was broken and Saliga was not subject to deed restrictions.

The Georges and their neighbors have taken the case to the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin.

Through her attorney Charles Soechting of San Marcos, Saliga declined to comment because litigation continues.

County law enforcement people “have been very nice,” said George, but they also say that under the law there is nothing they can do unless sound levels rise above 85 decibels. That is approximately the sound of a diesel truck going 40 miles an hour and passing at 100 feet. George said noise from the wedding venue is registering in the 60s.

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On Saturdays when the weddings are going on, George has played music on his patio and mowed his lawn. That’s what you do on Saturday afternoons. His activities have drawn attention.

Once, according to George, an off-duty deputy assigned to wedding traffic and security stopped by and told his wife, “Ma’am, I’m telling you your husband isn’t doing anything illegal, but I would like you to ask him to stop mowing his grass because he might get in trouble with the judge.”

The Garden Grove dispute is not the only such case in Hays County. One county official, who declined to be identified because he faces election and doesn’t want to be drawn into the controversy, said, “every 15th property owner in Hays County wants to build a wedding chapel.”

In Dripping Springs, which bills itself as “the wedding capital of Texas,” another wedding chapel – Memory Lane Event Center LLC — fought it out in court with neighbors in 2016.

Two couples living near Memory Lane took aggressive steps to drive away the wedding venue’s customers. Give the neighbors credit for creativity.

They erected signs on their nearby property reading “Bull Horn Security Test 24/7” and “Warning in this area: wild hogs, coyotes, fire ants, oak wilt.”

They hung a “voodoo weddings” sign with an effigy of a bride and groom made from animal skulls. They honked horns, fired guns and built fires that caused smoke to drift over wedding ceremonies, according to court findings.

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The judge ordered the wedding venue proprietors to tone down the noise, but he also prohibited the complaining neighbors from further attempts to harass customers, and required them to pay $20,000 in damages to Memory Lane.

I’ve written before about unrestrained development in rural areas. The Texas Legislature has refused to give counties zoning powers over unincorporated areas.

So, before you buy your dream ranch in the Hill Country, check deed restrictions, confirm clear title, and check other local rules and regulations, such as they are, very carefully.

If you are moving to Hays County, you might also run a Google search on weddings near you.

Oppel is a former editor of the American-Statesman and now is ombudsman of Texas Monthly.

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