OCONTO – The Oconto Riviera is a go.
The Oconto City Council on Tuesday approved a three-year trial run for Riley Sowle and Anita Jensen to host weddings and other gatherings outside their picturesque property adjacent to the Oconto River just east of U.S. 41 on McDonald Street.
Sowle described it as a “huge relief” and a “very good, very positive step that we are happy about.”
The couple will be allowed to host up to 25 wedding and special events this year, with the maximums rising to 50 in 2023 and 60 in 2024.
The city spelled out numerous conditions that Sowle and Jensen need to meet during the evaluation period, such as events must end by 10 p.m., off-street parking must be provided, and they must comply with all city noise ordinances.
“We are going to be reviewing it every year, and handling any complaints,” Mayor Lloyd Heier said.
Per the agreement, a city official can review the property or any event at any time to confirm compliance with the conditions.
Sowle said he worked out the details of the conditions with the Building Inspection Ad-Hoc Committee on Monday.
“Part of this is a provision that says if I mess up or blow it at any point they can pull the plug on me at any time,” he said. “Then likewise, once we prove it is not going to be a problem, they can give us the full approval early as well.”
The couple began their effort to get approval to host events inside the former cattle barn more than a year ago. However, opposition from neighbors hampered the effort.
During an outdoor wedding last summer that the city permitted as a trial run, nearby residents subsequently complained about on-street parking and headlights that shone toward their homes.
The couple agreed to move the parking to land they own across the street.
The council passed the three-year trial basis on 4-1 vote, with Roger Reed voting against it.
“We as a city and a city council needed to make a decision,” Heier said. “This has been hanging around too long.”
In recent weeks, the council had been discussing how to word an ordinance that would govern outdoor venues, but in the end didn’t create one.
While Sowle and Jensen eventually hope to host events inside their barn, they will start out offering an outdoor-only venue until improvements get the structure to meet building codes.
The first date on their event calendar is May 21, when they will host a wedding. Sowle said the event was previously penciled in with the hopes of the city would approve the venue.
On Wednesday, the day after the council gave its OK, Jensen provided tours to two perspective clients.
However, most wedding couples have already booked sites for their 2022 nuptials, so 2023 will likely be busier for Sowle and Jensen. This year, Sowle says, the events will be more along the lines of graduations and class reunions.
“There’s going to be lots of events here, undoubtedly, in 2022, but as far as weddings, it’s just kind of tougher because of the nature of the booking,” he said, referring to the 25-goal as “hopeful optimism.”
Alderperson Al Schreiber, who voted for the trial basis, said he thinks the business will be good for the city, and critics will “find out that it will be easier to tolerate than they think.”
“There should be enough conditions put in there to take care of the problems,” Schreiber said. “We’ve had assurances from the people with the venue that they will do whatever they can to make this work for everybody.”
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