By Cecilia Chan GSN Managing Editor

A Gilbert farmhouse complete with a 3,500-square-foot barn that provides rustic ambience for weddings and other celebrations could soon serve alcohol instead of the current “mocktails.” Then again, maybe not.

Elegant Barn on Greenfield Road and Houston Avenue, last week prevailed in a contentious public meeting, winning Gilbert Planning Commission’s approval to remove a condition that had forbidden it from serving alcohol. The vote was 4-3.

But Councilman Eddie Cook, who sat through the nearly 2.5-hour meeting, filed an appeal the following morning on behalf of neighboring homeowners who voiced concerns about inebriated drivers, increased traffic and other public nuisances they fear will result from allowing Elegant Barn to sell booze.

“The council voted no against it in 2012,” Cook said. “At the time, the applicant accepted our no vote and they’ve had a successful business since then.”

Cook said the appeal may come before the Council in the Sept. 20 meeting.

Owners Dennis and Stella Elliott, through attorney Brennan Ray, said the request to serve alcohol would allow them to compete on an even playing field with other wedding venues.

The Elliotts purchased the banquet facility in 2012 and applied for a special-use permit to operate the business in an area zoned for single-family homes.

The Planning Commission granted the Mesa couple’s request and imposed conditions, including limiting what hours and what days the facility can operate and prohibiting live bands from performing at the venue.

There was no prohibition against alcohol, but it was understood there would be no open bar and no alcohol, so that issue was not on the table, senior planner Nathan Williams told commissioners.

The Elliotts appealed the commission’s vote to Town Council, which upheld the panel’s decision and added more stipulations. Those included limiting the barn’s maximum capacity to 233, not allowing outdoor speakers, prohibiting parking on the west side of Greenfield Road and banning the consumption and service of alcohol.

The Elliotts opened for business in February 2014 and, a year later, won approval from the Planning Commission to modify the permit’s conditions to allow for live music, expanded hours of operation and the use of speakers up to 15 feet outside the main barn doors.

Ray told commissioners the request was not to remove the stipulation banning alcohol but to modify it to allow the service of alcohol by a licensed third-party vendor.

Neal Kendrick, who owns a mobile bartending company, said his staff is certified and professionally trained to spot and cut off people who may have had too much to drink. He said his company handles delivery, service and cleanup and no client or guest is allowed to handle alcohol.

Ray said Elegant Barn has held 260 events since opening with no verified traffic and nuisance complaints or police visits and only one code violation.

“We believe we have a proven track record,” Ray said. “The use of this property is highly regulated. They take their impact on the neighborhood very seriously.”

He said the Elliotts have incurred significant expense, to the tune of $97,000, to address the concerns of nearby residents as outlined in the permit’s conditions – which included paving and widening the Houston Avenue alignment, having traffic coordinators at each event, installing camera systems and sound-proofing the barn.

Ray added Dennis Elliott even walks around during events with a decibel meter to ensure compliance with the town’s noise ordinance.

He said Elegant Barn is facing increasing competition and is losing bookings because it doesn’t serve alcohol.

He added that because the Elliotts are unable to serve alcohol, they lost about 48 percent of potential clients in 2015, 49 percent in 2016 and 57 percent in 2017, resulting in a total estimated revenue loss of $2.6 million.

Six of the 10 people at the meeting who submitted cards in support spoke, including Sue Jacobs of Sue Jacobs Cakes. The vendor works with the Elliotts providing wedding cakes. She said Elegant Barn is the only venue she has partnered with that doesn’t offer alcohol and that it  hurts their business.

“I see the Elegant Barn go the distance,” said Jamy Belcher, general manager of Gilbert Hampton Inn & Suites, which also partners with Elegant Barn on events. “I’ve never seen a venue ran so well. Gilbert is very lucky to have them in the community as a neighbor.”

He said the business has a proven track record that shows it can handle having alcohol.

The 11 residents from a group of more than 30 who attended the hearing in opposition raised numerous concerns, such as more traffic coming into their neighborhood and the safety of their children. The roads in the area are already congested and unsafe and to send more traffic, especially down poorly lit Houston Avenue, is a mistake, they said.

They also said the reason why Elegant Barn has had no problems is because it didn’t serve alcohol. Many of the opponents wore stick-on tags that said “Enough is enough.”

Julie Bader, who spoke for a few residents, said Elegant Barn is the only business in town operating in a residential neighborhood. At least two churches and two schools and a public library are nearby.

Bader said the no-alcohol stipulation came about because the Elliotts said they didn’t want to serve alcohol from the get-go and that the conditional-use permit was based on assurances to the town and neighbors that no alcohol would be offered at the venue. Residents said they gave their support for the venue in return for the promise of no alcohol.

“They are doing well,” Bader said.

If Elegant Barn is losing bookings, it’s because barn weddings are losing their appeal, she said.

Although there is only one noted violation, she said, there are unverified ones.

For example, she said, she has had to drive over to the venue three times to ask them to turn down the music, which she could hear in her house despite having all the windows closed. She also said her next-door neighbor has to keep her dogs inside when events take place to keep them from barking and that another neighbor was asked not to do yardwork because it interfered with events.

She said nothing has changed since the stipulation against alcohol was put in place.

“Help us protect the integrity and safety of our neighborhood,” she said. “Enough is enough.”

Amy Higgins, who lives adjacent to the venue, said she was hit in 1997 and in 2000 by inebriated drivers in Phoenix. One  accident sent her through her windshield.

“It took me years to get over the repercussions of those accidents,” she said, asking commissioners to not put the interest of money before residents.

The commission agreed it was a difficult issue with Commissioners David Cavenee, Seth Banda and Carl Bloomfield siding with residents who were against the change.

Cavenee said he was more swayed by those who spoke in opposition than by the proponents, many who were vendors with a vested interest.

He said the residents have kept their side of the agreement and the Elliotts are seeking a modification for financial gain.

“We granted wonderful benefits to allow a business to be successful,” he said. “Nothing has changed to alter that.”

He said he appreciated Kendrick’s presentation but despite having professional bartenders, it comes down to who is drinking alcohol and not who is serving it. One drink can impair a person and it’s not always easy to tell who is beyond their limit, Cavenee said.

Banda, who has a DJ business and works wedding venues that have third-party vendors serving alcohol, said he has seen firsthand people consuming alcohol beyond their limit and bridal parties sneaking in booze. And, he has seen the astronomical number of Ubers, taxis and other vehicles that come in for an event.

“My heart goes out to the Elliotts,” he said. But “this is not a wedding venue like others. This is in a neighborhood.”

Despite its good track record, that can absolutely change when alcohol is thrown into the mix, Banda said.

For Bloomfield, the issue boiled down to one thing.

“If you wanted to run a business, you should have put it in an area zoned for that,” he said. “This is in a residential zone. I compliment you for running a good business, but I would say to you be content with the conditional-use permit you have and operate your business.”

Chairman Kristopher Sippel said he supports small businesses and wants to give them every opportunity to be successful.

He added if Elegant Barn were to violate a condition, the commission can revoke the conditional-use permit, meaning the business would no longer be allowed to operate.

Commissioner Greg Froehlich was on the fence until he got support for two additional stipulations – allow alcohol to be served from 5-9 p.m. when schools are closed and require Elegant Barn to hire one more professional security person to direct traffic on Houston Avenue during events when alcohol is served.

Commissioners Joshua Oehler and Brian Johns joined in the support of granting Elegant Barn’s request.