The Twelve Oaks Bed and Breakfast has been hosting weddings for more than a year, but events aren’t actually allowed under its current zoning permit and its fate as a wedding destination rests in the hands of the Covington City Council.
Dozens of residents packed City Hall for Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting, including several from the neighborhoods around The Twelve Oaks who complained about noise and parking issues from the weddings held at the bed and breakfast, while owner Nicole Greer presented her case for continuing to host such events.
After a two-hour meeting, attorneys for both sides – Greer’s attorney and local attorney Michael Geoffroy, who is also a resident of the area – agreed to see if they could reach a compromise on a set of conditions that would allow Greer to continue having weddings while mitigating residents’ noise and parking concerns.
Under its special use permit, the 8,060-square-foot home on 3.15 acres at 2176 Monticello St. can be used as a "bed and breakfast only," with the word "only" preventing the property from hosting weddings and other events.
Though the bed and breakfast has been hosting weddings since last summer, the Covington Planning and Zoning Department notified Greer recently she wasn’t legally able to host such events. So, she’s now applying for the right to do so.
The Covington Planning Commission voted 6-1 Tuesday to allow Greer to withdraw her request without prejudice, but that was after the two attorneys had agreed to attempt to reach a compromise. The planning commission only makes a recommendation to the City Council, which actually can approve or deny a zoning request or allow the applicant to withdraw a request.
Councilmen Keith Dalton and Chris Smith, who were in attendance Tuesday, said they would recommend the council table the item at its Feb. 17 meeting if the two sides were not yet able to come to a final agreement in the next six days. Councilwoman Hawnethia Williams was also in attendance and said she hoped that would be the case as well, but said the dynamics can change when a zoning issue comes before the council.
One of Covington’s largest, most expensive and most historic homes, 2176 Monticello St. was built in 1834 (according to the Newton County Tax Assessor’s website; The Twelve Oaks website said 1836) and was the inspiration for the famous Twelve Oaks in the movie "Gone with the Wind."
The home was famously sold for $1.35 million in 2007 at the height of the housing market, but went into foreclosure in November 2010 (it also went into foreclosure in December 2001).
The house fell into disrepair during the past few years, including a porch that was collapsing, water damage on every level and more than 20 boarded-up windows, Greer said.
She watched as the price kept falling before purchasing it for $486,000 from The Bank of New York in September 2011 and began the expensive process of renovating it, including installing a sprinkler system and making restrooms handicap-accessible to allow it to be used as a bed and breakfast.
The home has become a popular tourist destination with eight unique rooms and has increasingly been used as a popular wedding spot, including being named a 2014 pick for the "best of weddings" by The Knot magazine.
The bed and breakfast’s website features prominent promotion of weddings and other events, including rehearsal dinners, bridal showers, engagement parties, photographs and corporate retreats, a fact that concerns some nearby residents.
While Greer said she didn’t get into the bed and breakfast business to make a lot of money, hosting events is an important source of revenue.
Though there were conflicting reports about whether Greer was clearly told she couldn’t host weddings under the permit for the property that allowed the bed and breakfast use, the city didn’t tell Greer she was in violation until recently. In fact, the Covington City Council voted last year to allow Monticello Street to be closed for limited periods of time for weddings at The Twelve Oaks, in an effort to prevent noise from street traffic interrupting the weddings.
Ironically, it’s now the noise from wedding receptions that is causing concerns among neighbors.
However, Greer said she had only received a complaint or two prior to the issue coming up the past few weeks.
She told the planning commission she had already taken multiple steps to prevent issues, including having contracts for events at her property that include requirements to provide for off-site parking at a parking lot for larger events, limiting events to 10 p.m., requiring police for traffic control, and even buying a decibel meter to measure the decibel levels of events to make sure they’re under the 60- decibel level allowed under the city’s ordinance.
Jim Williamson, owner of Plain Nuts Catering, has catered weddings at The Twelve Oaks and spoke in support of Greer Tuesday, saying the weddings at her property are a boon to several local businesses. Greer said many of the weddings are upscale affairs with budgets of $30,000, much of which is distributed around the local economy.
Williamson said Covington needs a location like The Twelve Oaks to compete with destinations like the McDaniel Tichenor House in Monroe and others in surrounding counties.
Several residents spoke against Greer’s request to allow events, and Geoffroy said more than 60 area residents had signed a petition against the request.
Two residents who take care of elderly parents worried both about the noise affecting the quality of life of their loved ones and about the extra traffic and cars parked on Ivy and Pennington streets blocking access for their own cars and emergency vehicles.
One man in the audience said it wasn’t so much the noise level itself – for example a lawnmower is great than 60 decibels and even people having a conversation is close to that level – it’s the lduration of multiple hours of music and noise.
The size and frequency of events were also mentioned as being too excessive.
Working it out
Greer said she did 10 weddings in 2013, which was a lot for her, and she was willing to agree to a limit on the number of weddings/events and was willing to reach a compromise on other issues, including limiting size and parking and allowing even less noise on the property.
Her attorney, Conyers-based John Nix, suggested meeting with Geoffroy to see if the two sides could reach an agreement amenable to all, which Geoffroy agreed to.
Planning commission members debated for a long time, but ultimately wanted to let the two sides work out their issues if possible, and voted to approve allowing the applicant to withdraw without prejudice (they only have four options – to approve a request, to approve a request with conditions, to deny a request, or to allow an applicant to withdraw a request with or without prejudice).
The commission hoped to pick the most innocuous of options to allow the two sides to meet and come back before the Covington City Council, which has the ultimate authority anyway