NEW HANOVER COUNTY — One of the region’s most intimate and laid-back wedding venues will permanently close after years of operating without a proper permit, an issue complicated by the fact that county regulations don’t specifically address wedding venues.
Tucked deep at the end of a residential area off Masonboro Loop Road, Marker 137 served as a sacred, serene space for more than 50 newlyweds since 2014.
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Battered by coronavirus cancellations and a recent wave of disputes with neighbors, the venue’s owner, Anna Bessellieu McCauley, put the sprawling 2.7-acre waterfront property on the market for $1.9 million late last month.
After being informed that her business violated the county’s ordinances following a complaint, McCauley formally submitted an application for a Special Use Permit (SUP) in June, per the county’s recommendation. The New Hanover County Planning Board denied the request 6-0 last month; Tuesday evening, McCauley told Commissioners she was withdrawing her application and closing her business.
Since the August Planning Board meeting, McCauley said she’s endured harassment from neighbors. Saturday, when McCauley said she was hosting a sweet 16 birthday party for a friend’s daughter, a neighbor drove up to her property and took photos of young children at the event while standing within four feet of her porch.
“Honestly, the harassment from the opposing neighbors had become more than I want to deal with. They pretty much took all the joy out of my home,” McCauley said Wednesday morning.
“So I made a deal. If they would leave me alone and let me live the way I want to live until it’s time for the house to be sold, then I would withdraw. The calls, the texts, it was just too much. But ultimately coronavirus did us in. We were going to have to close anyway. I just chose not to fight anymore,” she said.
Aside from neighborhood squabbles, the crux of the permitting issue comes down to the inability to define what McCauley was doing.
New Hanover County’s Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) does not include a specific use designation for wedding venues. Nestled deep in an entirely R-15, residential area, Marker 137 stood out from its quiet and low-traffic neighbors. Though the business more closely resembles a commercial operation, planning staff settled on “outdoor recreation” as the closest fit to defining Marker 137. But to be granted permission to operate an outdoor recreation facility in an R-15 district, the property owner must gain approval through the SUP process (a complicated procedure that most applicants seek costly legal representation to complete).
“There’s no definition of what we did,” McCauley said Wednesday. “So how would we have known we would have needed that permit?”
New Hanover County Planning Director Wayne Clark said last week the county was not aware the business existed until receiving a complaint from a neighbor last winter.
“It was never allowed to operate,” Clark said. The county sent McCauley a courtesy letter informing her of the violation in December 2019, he said, stopping short of an official notice of violation, which could trigger a $100 daily fine. However, McCauley said the first time she was informed of a violation was this May.
Since receiving the letter, Clark said McCauley should not have hosted weddings. “We aren’t aware if she had any weddings during that period,” he said.
According to McCauley, she booked her last bride in the spring and recently canceled about five events. Because most venues book one year to 18 months out, McCauley regrets the previously booked couples are stuck looking for alternative spaces. “For that, I couldn’t apologize enough,” she said.
Marker 137 gave wedding parties a natural backyard view of the Intracoastal Waterway surrounded by winding oaks.
The privacy the property offered was an important part of the business — and helped it fly under the radar. Though it technically operated in violation of county ordinances, it took five years and more than 60 weddings for the county to notice.
Likely unbeknownst to couples who booked the venue, the privacy that supported its $4,800 full package price tag came at a cost to the owner: degrading relations with her residential neighbors.
In an August hearing, Dr. Alan Brown, McCauley’s waterfront neighbor, played the Planning Board a slightly distorted but still clearly audible phone recording of Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me.”
Brown said he taped the recording inside his home during one of McCauley’s weddings. “This is what it sounds like in my house,” Brown said while holding up his phone. “My doors are closed.”
During weddings, Brown said he would avoid mowing the lawn out of respect for newlyweds. His dinner guests had difficulty hearing one another at his home during events, he said, with music amplified by the waterway. Even the venue’s namesake, the since washed away channel marker 137, used to direct Google Map users down Sound View Drive to Brown’s property instead of down Whipporwill Lane to McCauley’s.
“I’ve turned the cheek over and over again. I’ve stopped mowing. I’ve closed my doors. I’ve done what I could,” Brown said. After working privately with McCauley to resolve disturbances caused by her weddings, Brown said the potential for the proposed permit to carry on in perpetuity concerned him.
“I respectfully request that you deny her request,” he told the Planning Board. “And I do that with some sorrow because as we’ve already heard, this whole thing ruins relationships. But to be fair to the people who’ve been enduring this for years, out of trying to be kind and compassionate and sensitive, we’ve lived through a lot of inconveniences to try to honor Ann. Ann needs to find another way to take care of the finances of her property. A wedding venue is inappropriate in a residential neighborhood.”
‘Joyful’ vs. ‘atrocity’
Each year, McCauley said she’d book a maximum of 12 weddings, totaling 36 hours of music. On average, 125 guests attended each event, arriving and exiting through the dead-ended Whipporwill Lane, a half-mile trek lined with modest single-family homes.
In reviewing McCauley’s SUP application, New Hanover County Planning staff had difficulty identifying similar businesses in the region and even along the East coast. Planner Gideon Smith said similar commercial uses typically connect directly to larger roadways so residential neighborhoods aren’t impacted by nonresidential traffic.
Despite the unusual use of land given the zoning district, several of McCauley’s neighbors said they enjoyed the events.
“When Anna has these weddings on her property, it is absolutely not invasive to us as neighbors. As a matter of fact, it’s joyful,” Jennifer Tucker, a neighbor off of New Jack Road told the Planning Board. “I love sitting on my porch and hearing the music and knowing that there’s this amazing joyful thing going on that I know that Anna is providing for the others.”
McCauley said she went to painstaking lengths to appease disgruntled neighbors — lengths that perhaps afforded her to operate for so many years out of the county’s view. Between weddings, she would switch speakers from side to side to alternate which neighbors heard the brunt of the noise. She knocked on doors to smooth things over or warn nearby neighbors of upcoming events. When a neighbor complained about hearing profanity in a rap song, she quickly added a clause in her contracts to prohibit offensive language in music.
Despite the attempts to mend fences, for some neighbors, the damage was already done.
“I really do not wish to be here as I believe that a person should be able to do what they want within reason on their property,” Lynn Fowler, whose property abuts McCauley’s, told the board. “I’m sure after voicing my opinion it will create hardships between myself and a couple of my neighbors — which God only knows why they are willing to tolerate this atrocity — and that’s not my intention.”
Though events and music stopped at 10 p.m., Fowler said car lights would shine into his yard into the night. Guests lingering and waiting for rides could still be heard past the cutoff time, he said.
“These events give new meaning to invading the privacy of your neighbors and in no way should be allowed in a residential community,” he said. “Put yourself in my position. You wouldn’t want this going on.”
Planning Board member Paul Boney recognized the burden imposed on McCauley’s neighbors, not just in living adjacent to a wedding venue, but also in appearing before the board to oppose the proposed permit, adding to an uncomfortable tension in the neighborhood.
“I think it is a disruption in these people’s lives and I think you need to recognize that,” Boney told McCauley.
Now that she’s dropped her application, McCauley likened losing the business to grieving a death. She looks forward to being left alone before her property sells, and later, to moving away from the discord.
“The ugliness of this has taken my heart,” she said.
[Editor’s note: An employee of Local Daily Media is currently involved in litigation against McCauley. That employee was not involved in the reporting of this article.]
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