Wendy Heckmann has hosted many gatherings for family and friends at her home in Rancho Mirage, from Thanksgiving meals to birthday parties, with no problem in her 22 years of living there.
But she says that all changed in February, when a city worker knocked on her door as she prepared to host a close friend’s wedding the next day.
The clerk asked for a venue permit for the wedding and then told her she would have to cancel the planned event or face thousands of dollars in fines.
Heckmann had no idea that she needed permission for a friend’s wedding. Since the wedding was taking place the next day, she decided to pay a $252 application fee to get special permission.
But she is now suing the city in federal court for using a large gatherings ordinance to regulate not only commercial events but parties in private homes.
While she was able to proceed with the wedding, Heckmann was shaken by the incident.
Heckmann, who is seeking to have the ordinance repealed, filed a lawsuit against the city in U.S. District Court on Wednesday, saying it has “poored its ability to host events at its home in Rancho Mirage for immediate family, extended family and friends, impaired.”
The complaint alleges violations of the California Constitution and their rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the US Constitution, including their right of assembly and due process.
The regulation in question was unanimously approved by the Council in 2018 to allow non-profit organizations to host special events of 25 or more people in a private home, while commercial events of the same size are banned in residential areas.
However, Heckmann’s attorney argues that the ordinance was written to ban private gatherings of more than 25 participants that do not involve non-profit organizations.
The regulation defines “commercial events” as “any event organized or conducted by a person or entity that does not qualify as a tax-exempt non-profit organization and which involves the gathering of 25 or more persons at a private residence in an area of City located in a residential zone district.”
The complaint states: “Therefore, under (the ordinance), a person’s gathering at his or her own home in a residential area of Rancho Mirage is considered a commercial event if (i) it is not held by or for a non-profit organization, and (ii) 25 or more people attending,” effectively disqualifying them.
The complaint adds that the City of Rancho Mirage has continued to allow large private gatherings as long as the homeowner obtains a permit, keeps noise down, and ends the event by 10 p.m
But for Heckmann, there was another unexpected requirement that she had to fulfill during the wedding.
“What the city failed to mention (when issuing the permit) was that they would send a city official to stand outside their home and monitor the event,” the complaint reads. “On the day of the wedding, a city employee stood on the sidewalk in front of Ms. Heckmann’s house, measured the decibel level and made sure that the guests left until 10 p.m..”
According to the complaint, the employee “repeatedly contacted Ms. Heckmann with reports of the decibel level during the wedding.” City spokesman Gabe Codding said code officers went to the scene after receiving “complaints of loud music and flashing lights with a very loud and noisy party being held at the property that evening.”
“After discussing the event with the property owner, she agreed to turn the music down and the matter was resolved without a subpoena,” Codding told The Desert Sun.
In March, about a month after the wedding, Heckmann wanted to host a birthday party for her twin daughters, which more than 25 people were expected to attend. Concerned that city officials would show up at her home and try to shut down the event, she applied for a special event permit.
“The city ignored and/or failed to respond to Ms. Heckmann’s request, leaving her again concerned that the city would fine her or attempt to shut down the birthday celebration,” the complaint reads.
Rick Friess, an attorney representing Heckmann, said he believes the ordinance was initially seen by the council as a way to curb large parties at short-term holiday rentals. The city banned all such rentals last year. But he said, as currently enforced, it goes well beyond that.
“I have five kids: My Thanksgiving will have more than 25 people,” Friess said.
The city had not received the complaint as of Thursday. Assistant City Attorney Michael Cobden declined to comment on the lawsuit, but added: “The city believes the ordinance does not violate the right of residents to assemble and use their homes.”
Friess, who said other residents could join the lawsuit, said the ordinance required the city council to revisit the issue and “talk about what they’re really trying to achieve.”
“You really have to revoke it,” Friess said. “You just have to start over and get actual public contributions.”
Tom Coulter covers the cities of Palm Desert, La Quinta, Rancho Mirage and Indian Wells. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @tomcoulter_.