The Wedding Boom: County Sees No Evil

Sign: Mile Marker 104, Key Largo

by Arnaud and Naja Girard…….

She’s an amazing photographer: photos of endangered birds standing on the flats, manatees drifting over the seagrass beds. I point to an extraordinary shot of the sunset. “Well, the place is called Sunset Cove,” observes Louise with a smile. Along with her husband, Louise Lindsay has lived within that secret corner of Key Largo for the past 30 years.

But like many others in the Keys, she now fears that the quiet peaceful days are over. Business, you see, has discovered their Paradise; specifically, the wedding industry. It is booming, and thanks to a bizarre loophole, practically unregulated. 

In the not so distant past, observes Matt Douglas (in a 3-part report on weddings) a bride-to-be would start by dog-earing the pages of a few bridal magazines and the couple would visit various wedding venue options near home. Today a google search offers infinite possibilities and easy virtual exploration thanks to an abundance of photographs, videos, and customer reviews.

Places like the Key Largo Lighthouse Beach, near Sunset Cove, “nestled on an unknown secluded beach” and “built from the ground up as a pure wedding venue” are trying their hand at this 72 billion dollar industry.

The Key Largo Lighthouse Beach website indicates a total capacity of 300 people and according to one review the place was “almost completely booked for the entire year.” Pricing [for the venue alone] starts at $11,300 for 3-nights.

Copyright, 2017 Louise Lindsay , “From My Kayak”

“Yesterday,” says Louise, “I just wanted to sit down and enjoy a quiet sunset and take pictures. The moment I get out onto the water all I hear is, ‘Ladies and gentlemen! Let’s make noise for the bride!’  Then loud cheering from the crowd and amplified music. A few minutes go by and the DJ is on the mic again: ‘Ladies and gentlemen! Let’s make noise for the bride and the groom having their first dance! And then more dance music.”

“Most people moved here to live in harmony with nature,” says Louise. She bought her dream house on the beach of Sunset Cove.

She asked Monroe County Senior Planner, Tom Broadrick, why commercial activity is being allowed in a residential area.  “He said that weddings are not considered businesses. They’re not considered “commercial” because [he said] ‘everyone can have a wedding’.”

However, when we reviewed County code enforcement files things got blurry.

Between October 2013 and July 9, 2014 code compliance pursued a case against Historic Shadow Point on Key Largo to put a stop to the wedding side of its activities.

On June 6, 2014 the code inspector wrote, “Mr. Gonzales [manager] indicated that he wanted to know what they would have to do to continue wedding business on site.”

On June 16th, he wrote, “Mr. Williams [Steve Williams, Assistant County Attorney] did advise them that the commercial use [weddings] was not permitted.”

Then, again, the code case notes show that on June 30, 2014, “the commercial use was discussed again and understood that it is not allowed (per discussion with Planning and with ACA Steve Williams).

So, at one point at least, County lawyers and planners agreed that a “wedding business” was “commercial” and was not permitted in residential zones.

Interestingly, Historic Shadow Point does still advertise itself as a wedding venue. They claim a capacity of up to 200 guests. [No sign of life from Code Enforcement.]

The Key Largo Lighthouse Beach destination wedding venue is a huge success. They have over 250 rave reviews. Yet both wedding venues are in zones where “commercial activities” are not permitted (SR and IS).

Does the County’s more recent position [weddings are “not commercial” and “anyone can have a wedding”] mean any property owner can now get on board with the online craze to host “destination weddings”? Whether in a dense residential area or on Tier 1 conservation land?

David McGraw, the owner of Key Largo Lighthouse Beach, points out that he and his wife, Mariana, purposefully located their business away from a crowded residential neighborhood. “Our closest neighbor lives 1/4 mile away,” he says. But he agrees that things are getting out of hand in the County:

“I know for certain from DJ’s that have been at our place and tell me that at other places they have fights with their neighbors, slashing people’s tires and people coming with leaf blowers – they’re so pissed off. But don’t think it’s just a wedding problem.”

He says he would favor some sort of licensing with the County: “Maybe a requirement to declare events in advance.” McGraw argues that if there was always a list of upcoming weddings then complaints against businesses would be very easy to investigate. Code inspectors would know when to show up at the next wedding. “And if you don’t post the wedding, then shame on us and revoke the license. That is what should happen,” says McGraw.

“Again, he emphasizes that he’s only heard of one complaint in the four years he and his wife have owned the Lighthouse property. “And we addressed it immediately,” he says.

Key Largo Lighthouse Beach has now purchased the property next door, allowing for 2 weddings to occur at the same time.

I’m happy for those people, it’s a beautiful place to get married,” says Louise, “But I do want to be able to sit outside in my yard and not find myself in the middle of some strangers’ wedding.

She sends us more photos, taken from her kayak and a recording of the “crowd cheering” echoing in the sunset.

“Next,” says Louise, “would be the DJ yelling into his mic: ‘Ladies and gentlemen! Let’s make noise for the dance of the father and the bride!!!!”



14 thoughts on “The Wedding Boom: County Sees No Evil

  1. Everyone I’ve spoken with in Monroe County feels their safety, peace of mind and quality of life are under siege. They’re been made to suffer via the inaction of their elected officials.

    Over-development and relentless traffic jams, congestion and disturbances created by an incessant demand for the tourist dollar, has created a steady stream of vehicle accidents, deaths and gridlock throughout the Florida Keys.

    Yet, nothing of substance has been done to correct or ameliorate the destructive impact of these forces, which are endured by our residents and their families 24/7.

    Tipping Point anyone.

    The Keys are not and haven’t been Paradise for a long time. Strangulating on the steady stream of filth and debris left behind by the intruders that visit our islands, must never become the standard by which we are made to govern and live our lives.

  2. Steven G. Gieseler and Nicholas M. Gieseler of Gieseler & Gieseler P.A., Stuart, for Appellant. William G. Warner of the Warner Law Firm, PA., Panama City, and Mark D. Davis, of Andrews & Davis, Defuniak Springs, for Appellee.
    The Bennetts own a beachfront triplex and adjacent lot known as “The Lawn” in south Walton County that they rent many times each year for weddings, graduation parties, reunions, and other events. Their property sits within a county-designated “Residential Preservation Area” district surrounded by family dwellings. In 2010, the Bennetts’ neighbors began to complain to the County about events held on the Lawn after about 30 wedding/event rentals had occurred in 2009 and more were being held in 2010. The County responded by citing the Bennetts three times between February 2010 and April 2011, for making “non-residential use” of their property in violation of Walton County’s Land Development Code (LDC). In response, the Bennetts sued the County, alleging, among other things, that the County’s ambiguous restriction and arbitrary enforcement violated their substantive due process rights. After the parties filed cross motions for summary judgment on the claim, the trial court ruled for the County. The Bennetts appealed and now we affirm.

    The trial court’s summary judgment ruling on the Bennetts’ challenge to the LDC involves a pure question of law that we review de novo on appeal. Kuvin v. City of Coral Gables, 62 So.3d 625, 629 (Fla. 3d DCA 2010) (citing Caribbean Conser. Corp. v. Fla. Fish & Wildlife Conserv. Comm’n, 838 So.2d 492, 500 (Fla.2003).

    Florida law authorizes counties and local governments to regulate local land development and promulgate zoning regulations. M & H Profit, Inc. v. City of Panama City, 28 So.3d 71, 77 (Fla. 1st DCA 2009). This case involves a provision of Walton County’s LDC dealing with the preservation of residential neighborhoods. Section 2.01.03(L)(3)(a)(iii) of the LDC provides that “[n]on-residential uses are not allowed” on lots within County-designated Residential Preservation Areas, such as the Bennetts’ triplex and the Lawn.

    1. This is clearly dispositive, by Florida law and affirmed on appeal.

      Code Enforcement, cite them. Or do you need a writ of mandamus?

      Thanks, Red. Glad to have you join the fight.

  3. This is a ridiculous situation. Neighbors shouldn’t have to put up with the congestion and noise generated by these “wedding venues”. If the owners both advertise and accept money for their services, they are operating businesses, and they’re operating them in residential neighborhoods.

    1. I totally agree but if they offer it for cash under the table it is hard to stop. That sign in it’s self is saying this is a business. With pressure of neighbors they could end it. I assume the county code compliance office has been called.

  4. A Category 5 hurricane landfalling Key West and waltzing up to Ocean Reef Club at oceanside of Key Largo will reduce some of Mother Nature’s beefs with the invasive species (humans) in the Florida Keys – for a while.

    Meanwhile, follow the money.

  5. Sloan,

    RE: Follow the money.

    I think you need to amend that statement to conform with the reality. How about “Bring Money”? 😉


    1. Dickford, it’s Been my observation in the Florida keys, since reincarnating flat broke here in late 2000, that when push comes to shove, money trumps everything else. Da ya think that’s the way it is on the mainland, too? Do ya think that’s the core message America sent to itself and to the world, when it elected Donald Trump president? In money we trust, all others, including God, must pay?

      1. Sloan, ya’ nailed it! And quite succinctly at that! Kudos!

        The evidence is overwhelming that “money talks”. And, no…this attitude predated Trump by decades: He’s just the latest figurehead for the autocracy.

        At first blush, we can claim that Trump was NOT elected by a majority of those who voted. That is true. Yet…he is the duly-elected president of our country. The reason is twofold: Huge amounts of money was poured into such efforts as “redistricting” (aka gerrymandering)…and, into it’s cousin “voter suppression”. In addition, huge amounts of money poured into lobbying efforts, media hype, “think tanks” and the like. I’ve seen estimates that range as high as $7 to $10 billion spent on this campaign. So, yes there was a LOT of well-financed political skullduggery afoot. Alas, this happens irrespective of the political bent of the nations voters. No political suasion can claim any “purity” here. Nor, is it expected.

        BUT…the “giant killer” here is voter apathy. And, VA remains as the solid leader among political parties in the U.S.: Their non-votes are votes, too. We consistently fail to recognize this reality.

        In my view, this serves to confirm your observation: Bring money. Majority rules, eh?


  6. Been visiting KW for over 40 years and it has always been about money. Yes not the Paradise it was back in 73 but the same has happened in many desired locations. Without tourist the keys will go broke and values drop. Say goodbye to thousands of jobs. A few might prefer it going back 40 years but they best be ready for the results. Without tourist many places would close and wages hit the bottom. True it is crowded but that is part of growth.

    As to weddings a lot depends on what you want as a view. Seen many at Ft Zack and that would cost dam near nothing.

    If using residential property for profit there are many tricks to get around that set of laws. Up to the county to find a way to stop it if they really can afford the court case.

    When you don’t enjoy where you live then move.

    Not much will change. Look at the places on Duval that are nothing more than a parking lot now selling food and drinks.Only the rich can afford a house in KW. You slowly will end up with no place for workers to live.

  7. Can see one loophole if Monroe county does not have a limit on the renting of a home for a few days then nothing could be done. What I see is very short term rentals. Or perhaps it only has a fine for doing this of maybe $100 per day and that would be a joke. Then it turns into just high priced rent. I dam sure know how to legally run a boat playing music to disrupt the wedding. Word of mouth would kill them fast. Don’t get mad just get even.

    1. Jim, I must say that your responses on this “issue” have been sterling. You have clearly outlined the questions. Money talks down here…as it does everywhere else. You can try to escape it…even succeed, for awhile. The simple fact remains that other people have rights, too. We forget that…


  8. I do not know all of Monroe county laws but would assume they had a situation like this covered. Yes it is clearly a money maker and commercial but the county must first cite them and be able to prove it in court. Keep in mind many of us found loopholes and made thousands by using it as written. What they clearly are doing is running this like a bed and breakfast. If the county won’t go after them then they simply found the needed loophole. It is hard to force a county to take action. MONEY TALKS. Take a look at what the KWPD and the city has managed to get away with murder.

    So short of the county taking action they have a gold mine.

  9. The key to the court case is (1) the county having properly written laws to withstand court scrutiny and (2) being able and willing to enforce those laws.

    One thing the court opinion does not say and I do not know, if there would be a private cause of action. Many laws do not have private causes of action. If there was, that would take neighbors willing to spend their own money to do something. Or, as the saying goes, put your money where your mouth is.

    Perhaps hotels and other commercial venues doing weddings in competition in the area would help fund a civil action. One should not be able to run a wedding venue business on residential property in a residential zoned area. It is just another form of short term rental if you ask me. Why should the neighbors have to put up with amplified music on top of it?

    And my god, $11,000 just for the venue. I wonder if there is even that expensive of a venue in Key West. The Truman White House lawn is like $4,000. I also wonder if those people are paying all the taxes they owe. Are there no sound ordinances there?
    You can get the TV airplane house for about that too, all weekend.

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