SISTERS — A Central Oregon man who has run afoul of the local government because he holds commercial weddings on land zoned for farm use has now been warned about church services on the property.
John Shepherd, a 56-year-old pastor, said he hosts small, nondenominational services out of his home on the Sisters-area property, with about 12 regular attendees.
A recent letter from Deschutes County’s Community Development Department informed him of “an alleged violation of the County Code associated with your property; specifically, that a church has located at the property without required land use approval.”
Shepherd said the notice is probably a violation of his First Amendment rights, and he has emailed a Christian civil liberties group for guidance.
“This is one new piece in a series of harassment from the county,” Shepherd told The Bend Bulletin newspaper.
The Community Development Department said the county is just trying to follow state safety guidelines.
Nick Lelack, the department director, said the county wouldn’t move forward with a violation until planners inspect the property. The county didn’t know about the church until Shepherd informed them about it, Lelack said.
“We’re not pursuing any other code enforcement at this point in this case,” he said. The county’s legal counsel is researching issues raised by Shepherd, Lelack said.
Shepherd, meanwhile, has had a multiyear dispute with the county because he holds commercial weddings on the property.
Deschutes County Commissioners voted to hold off on any fines against Shepherd last summer, when he hosted a full slate of weddings.
Shepherd declined to say how many have been scheduled for 2014.
“I haven’t had a single complaint from neighbors,” Shepherd said. “This doesn’t hurt anyone.”
Lelack said commercial weddings would violate county code, but it’s ultimately up to county commissioners whether to take action.
At least one commissioner, Tony DeBone, said he wants to the visit the property. DeBone said the church issue is about building safety, not religious freedom, and he hops the sides can reach an agreement on the church and wedding issues.
“I support private property rights and a citizen utilizing those rights,” he said.