A neighborhood squabble echoes loudly on Fox Island

Weddings may continue at historic Fox Island Chapel as lawsuit continues

A family that lives next to the Chapel on Echo Bay on Fox Island has filed a lawsuit in Pierce County Superior Court, alleging that events such as weddings at the historic venue have been excessively noisy.
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A family that lives next to the Chapel on Echo Bay on Fox Island has filed a lawsuit in Pierce County Superior Court, alleging that events such as weddings at the historic venue have been excessively noisy.

It’s a typical neighborhood dispute — except that it involves brides, grooms, guitars and an irascible neighbor with a lawyer.

The Chapel on Echo Bay, a classic white, wood-steepled church, has been a Fox Island icon since it was built in 1900 for Congregational worship. In 2000, it was acquired by local preservationists and turned into an event center.

Hundreds of weddings, concerts, speeches, and community activities have been held at The Chapel since, making the building a Fox Island landmark. Many of the events are held outside, on a tiny, flowerbed-ringed lawn facing the bay.

And many events involve music and noise. Too much noise for the nearest neighbors, Paul and Julie Harding.

They’ve sued the nonprofit Fox Island Chapel Preservation Society, demanding that the music and chattering crowds be kept inside. And the lawsuit has triggered a domino of land-use actions that the society fears threaten the chapel’s continued existence.

“The weddings are what keep us open,” said Rob Moore, a retired airline pilot who is a vice-president of the society. “They essentially pay for the upkeep on this 120-year-old building.”

But the Hardings argue in their suit that the weddings violate zoning rules and constitute a public nuisance.

“Music . . . is often so loud that the Hardings can hear the music inside their home,” says a complaint filed by the couple’s lawyer. Worse, the complaint continues, guests “gather outside for prolonged periods of time in which they are loud, sometimes yelling profanities and smoking near the Hardings’ property line.”

In a hearing July 12, a Pierce County Superior Court judge declined to grant the Hardings an injunction to force the music inside. But the society still faces a possible trial on the issue, as well as a series of contentious hearings on the legality of their use under county zoning regulations.

Scenic Location

The chapel has proposed multiple solutions to Harding, but all have been rejected, said Moore.

“We completely eliminated amplified music,” Moore said. “The only thing you hear now is maybe an acoustic guitar. And we canceled a series of monthly concerts we had been holding.”

The Chapel at Echo Bay sits on a waterfront cul-de-sac at the end of 6th Avenue, a street lined with expensive homes.

It was built in 1900 as a Congregationalist church by 13 islanders who were part of the historic Sylvan Glen Colony, a group of pioneers who came from Grinnell, Iowa to form a reformist community. Originally, the entrance faced the water, because worshipers arrived by boat.

It later became the home of the Fox Island United Church of Christ.

It has 18 pews and seats about 130 people. A reception room in the basement seats about 80, and has a small kitchen and a “bride’s room” with a bathroom and a vanity. The view from the chapel’s large windows is of Echo Bay, bobbing with boats, and Tanglewood Island across the way. The arch of the Fox Island bridge can be seen in the background.

There is a small back garden facing the water, with a trellis where weddings are performed. The Harding’s house is immediately next door, and their dock with a large boat is visible from the chapel yard.

The Hardings moved in next door in 2017, said Moore, after the chapel had been operating as a wedding venue for many years.

“We really don’t know much about him,” Moore said. “He’s only been here two years. He moved in early June, and by August we had a letter from his lawyers.”

Moore added that Harding has always been polite and friendly in person, so he was taken aback by the lawsuit.

The Hardings, through their attorney, Margaret Archer, declined to comment.

“Nobody wants to be the pariah of the neighborhood,” Archer said in court last week, but the Hardings felt they had no choice.

Upkeep by volunteers

The preservation society was formed to acquire the chapel after the United Church of Christ congregation outgrew it. The society raised about $250,000 for the purchase. It has about 100 members who contribute $25 a year, Moore said. The rest of the $100,000 annual budget for upkeep, Moore said, comes from weddings and other events.

The chapel hosts about three dozen weddings a year, charging $3,000 for a weekend event or $1,200 on a weekday.

Last weekend, the society’s president, Rich Nahum, was on a ladder to the chapel’s roof, trying to reach a squirrel’s nest in the attic.

“They made me president because I know how to use a hammer,” joked Nahum, a retired Boeing engineer.

Much of the upkeep on the chapel depends on volunteer labor, Nahum said. Even the flower beds surrounding the waterside lawn are maintained by the local garden club. The chapel is on Pierce County’s register of historic sites, and has received several county grants, including one to replacing the aging wooden floors.

The chapel is popular on the island — the court hearing last week drew about 15 supporters in blue shirts with the slogan “Let the Music Play.”

However, “just because a use is popular, that does not raise it above the law,” the Harding’s attorney said pointedly in court.

The nub of the Hardings’ complaint is that the society is operating an event center in a residential zone without a conditional use permit. That makes it illegal, and a public nuisance, Archer argued in court.

“What my clients want is to simply have some affirmative measures to control the noise,” Archer said. “They are not concerned with the weddings which are fairly quiet; it’s the receptions and the parties that can be really loud. And sometimes there is amplified music.”

“We are not saying cancel all the weddings,” she said. “We’re just saying keep them inside.”

That’s not practical, the society’s attorney, Mark Nelson, argued in court. The church itself is too small, and many couples choose the venue because they want to be married in the outdoor garden on the water, with its trellis and flower gardens.

Besides, Nelson said, the county has known since 1900 that activities such as weddings and concerts have been going on at the Chapel, long before the Hardings moved in.

“They didn’t play loud rock and roll music in 1900,” interjected Judge Stanley Rumbaugh, drawing a laugh from the courtroom audience, even those in blue shirts.

“Well, they did in the 1970s, when it was still a church,” Nelson responded. “Those guitars were there even back then.”

Injunction denied

In the end, Rumbaugh accepted Nelson’s argument that an injunction would an undue burden on the chapel, which would have to cancel up to 13 weddings already booked. But he said he would allow the suit go to trial on its merits. A trial date has not been set.

Meanwhile, the preservation society is scrambling to clarify its legal position with the county. The society applied for nonconforming use status in April. Nonconforming use, often called “grandfathering,” allows a prior use to continue when zoning has changed. But the hearing examiner ruled that churches and event centers are different uses, and the application was denied.

Now the society is applying for a conditional use permit, which would allow the new use under certain conditions. That can be a long process, beginning with a review by a local advisory board, then a hearing before a county hearing examiner.

A hearing on the application is scheduled at. Sept. 11 before the county’s Gig Harbor Peninsula Advisory Committee. The committee meets at 6:30 p.m. in the Gig Harbor Civic Center.

Kerry Webster and Alexis Krell contributed reporting to this story.