Dawn and Juraj Pekarik's lawyer urged St. Tammany Parish Council members Thursday to consider the negative things that could happen to a 12,000-square-foot building on Bayou Liberty if the council refused to change the zoning so the bed-and-breakfast can host weddings, parties and other events.
What's important is the future, not the past, attorney Jeff Schoen said of Bayou Haven, which has touched off controversy in the waterfront area near Slidell, with some residents decrying noise and traffic from the events held there.
Schoen urged the Parish Council to change the zoning to NC-5, a neighborhood commercial zone, which would allow the Pekariks to operate under a pending ordinance that would allow small events venues in areas with that zoning. Schoen said his clients "would like to try to get it right."
But the council voted 14-0 to deny the Pekariks' request for a commercial zoning classification.
"The best predictor of future events is the past," said Councilwoman Maureen O'Brien, one of several council members who chided the couple for holding weddings and other events at Bayou Haven in violation of their zoning and a deed restriction.
Several members said the issue boiled down to whether commercial activity is appropriate in a residential area. "I don't think an events venue belongs in a residential area," Councilman Mike Lorino said. His sentiment was echoed by Councilman Rykert Toledano.
Dawn Pekarik described the bed-and-breakfast as a $2 million investment that has been an asset to the Slidell area. She brought a petition in support of the zoning change with 1,200 signatures.
Several close neighbors also spoke in support of the business, saying that they have never been bothered by noise or seen heavy traffic from weddings and parties at the facility.
"It's such a beautiful place," said neighbor Lisa Suter. "I've never heard any noise from there. I've never seen flashing lights. It's perfectly quiet."
The Pekariks built their own home on Bayou Liberty and built the bed-and-breakfast next door, something that they planned to do without taking out a mortgage. But Dawn Pekarik said their circumstances changed. A contractor ripped them off and her husband lost a major account for his cleaning business, making it necessary for them to host events at the B&B.
"There was no malicious intent of any kind," she said. "It happened because of circumstances and changes in the business plan."
But opponents, who filled one side of the Parish Council chambers, offered a very different account. Ross Lagarde, the opponents' attorney, said the Pekariks were cited for code violations and fined by the parish's administrative hearing officer, Alan Black.
Eventually, neighbors sued in 22nd Judicial District Court to enforce a voluntary deed restriction that the Pekariks had signed to get support for an earlier zoning change that allowed them to operate the B&B. But the couple filed for bankruptcy, which Lagarde said put a halt to efforts to get an injunction.
They continued to hold events, he said, even after the bankruptcy judge told them they couldn't continue violating the zoning ordinance.
Charlie Caplinger, former president of the Bayou Liberty Homeowners Association, described the area as a jewel in St. Tammany Parish and not an appropriate place for a banquet hall. "From Day One, they disregarded the rules," he said of the Pekariks. "Now they are asking for another deed restriction? The first one was worthless."
He also questioned how the parish planned to enforce restrictions on occupancy at events if the zoning change was granted.
Councilman Steve Stefancik, who represents the area, laid out the history of complaints and violations. He said he's heard the noise from parties there, especially when there is a south wind.
When he toured the facility shortly after it first opened in 2014, he said, he was puzzled by the presence of a "dressing area" for brides and a groom's area at a bed-and-breakfast.
Even now, Stefancik said, Bayou Haven's website advertises it as a reception venue. The kicker, he said, is on the last page, which says it can accommodate 350 to 400 people.
"That's well beyond anything that would have been imagined by anyone on the bayou," he said.
This story was altered on Nov. 5, 2018 to reflect that the Pekariks' investment in Bayou Haven was $2 million.