Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include statements from Assistant City Manager Charlie View.
By Shawn Raymundo
Residents of a San Juan neighborhood off Aguacate Road have turned to the city to end what they believe is an unpermitted wedding venue being run out of a private home.
At the city council’s Aug. 6 meeting, a handful of those residents spoke out against one of their neighbors who has been hosting a series of weddings, which, they say, has created a nuisance from noise and traffic congestion.
One resident, Scott Doll, claimed that the property owners have promoted their home as a wedding venue, “effectively thumbing their noses at the city and expressing total disregard for the legal rights of us, their neighbors.”
“You got to go physically shut this down,” Doll said at the council meeting. “That’s the only way you’re going to stop these people.”
Gabrielle O’Connor, another local resident, recalled speaking with the owners of the property, who had said they were building a home and home office
“But this was a lie,” O’Connor said. “What she was, in fact, doing was building an event center for parties.”
The owner of the home in question, Tonya Picerne, told The Capistrano Dispatch on Wednesday, Aug. 7, that she has hosted some weddings for her friends, but insisted she’s not running a wedding venue business on the property and never meant to cause any rift with her neighbors.
“I don’t want to cause conflict with my neighbors,” she said. “I had one wedding for my girlfriend—my girlfriend; I’m not making money, I’m not in business to do weddings.”
Joel Rojas, the city’s development service director, acknowledged that the city is well aware of the situation and had already taken steps to shut the venue down by issuing citations and submitting a cease-and-desist letter. The last citation, he said, was for $1,000.
“It’s clear that they do not have any intent to stop, as the neighbors have indicated tonight,” Rojas said, adding that the city has been in talks with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, Orange County Fire Authority and other local agencies to put together a coordinated approach in stopping the events.
According to Assistant City Manager Charlie View, the city sent out its cease-and-desist letter to Picerne on July 25, but since then there have been two more events.
“We are aware of two events that occurred after the letter was sent,” View said in an email Friday, Aug. 9.
Based on the outpouring of individuals who testified on the matter Tuesday, the city council agreed to go back into a closed session later that night for further discussion.
In a unanimous vote by the council, the city attorney was directed to file a civil complaint against the wedding venue, as well as a Temporary Restraining Order, stopping the property owners from hosting future events, View said.
According to Picerne, she had spent the past few years designing and constructing her home so when it was complete, she wanted to use the space by allowing one of her best friends to have her wedding there.
“What I was thinking was an innocent thing, helping out somebody, has turned into something that I didn’t know was so illegal,” she said.
Afterward, one of Picerne’s friends, who she said is an event planner, asked her to host more weddings for other close friends. She emphasized that she has not accepted any money for hosting the weddings.
“I was told that as long as I don’t make any money that it should be legal, so I just finished building this house, and I thought I could host some weddings without it being a big deal if it wasn’t a business and making money off of it,” Picerne said. “That was my naïve understanding, I would say.”
Some of those who brought the issue to light during the council meeting noted that there have been websites marketing the property for weddings as the Pepper Tree Estate.
Picerne said she’s familiar with the online marketing; however, she said, it was her friend’s clients who created the postings.
A Google search for Pepper Tree Estate offers sites such as Wedding Wire, an online resource for couples planning weddings.
The “exclusive venue offers Southern hospitality in the convenient location of Southern California. The modern farmhouse structure is located on several acres of pristine land, presenting endless space for entertainment,” the website says of the property.
On the wedding planning site, the venue is shown to be operated by The Event Loft, which describes itself on its own website as “Southern California’s highest profile event design firm” and offers several exclusive properties, none of which includes the Pepper Tree Estate—the Aguacate house.
As of press time, The Event Loft had not returned requests for comment.
In the past eight weeks, there have been about six weddings, with the next one scheduled for Aug. 17, according to residents at the council meeting.
Picerne said that event has been canceled.
“So, yeah, we’re done. We’re done,” she said, repeating herself for emphasis. “I don’t want to break laws; I don’t want my neighbors to be upset.”
View said that while the city staff has been notified of future events being canceled, including the Aug. 17 wedding, they are asking for Picerne to submit proof of the cancellation.
“In the interest of assuring compliance and protecting the neighbors from further negative impacts, the City Attorney has requested documentation (email) that all events have been canceled and the affected parties notified,” View wrote. “The City Attorney’s office is working on completion of the process to resolve the matter.”
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for The Capistrano Dispatch. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow The Dispatch @CapoDispatch.