- Caleb Kenna
- Lisa and Roland Gaujac
Vermont is a popular place to get married, but not all of the people who live next to its rural wedding venues are celebrating. The special day isn't so special when it's almost every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from spring to late fall. Conflicts with neighbors have spilled into municipal meetings — and courts.
Just ask Justin Wygmans. In 2015, the owners of the Old Lantern, just 400 feet from his house on Greenbush Road in Charlotte, sued him and his wife, Maura, in Vermont Superior Court. Lisa and Roland Gaujac claimed the Wygmans were intentionally disrupting their outdoor weddings with a chain saw and a lawn mower.
The lawsuit was the culmination of several years of disagreements over wedding music, exterior lighting and the frequency of outdoor ceremonies. In the court filing, the Gaujacs said the Wygmans came to the border of the Old Lantern property "often in a motorized golf cart, and have screamed and yelled, including various obscenities, at plaintiffs and at reception guests in an attempt to disrupt the ceremonies."
Lisa Gaujac told Seven Days that the roaring chain saws were "ridiculous"; one noisy incident was deeply upsetting to the wedding party. "They came in and said, 'Who is this crazy guy? Why did he try to ruin our wedding?'" Gaujac recalled.
Wygmans is adamant that neither he and nor his family members has ever attempted to disrupt the roughly 70 weddings the Lantern hosts annually. He denied the allegations in a legal response to the lawsuit. In his view, the Gaujacs are unfairly asking his family to turn its property into a quiet zone to accommodate their business.
"You literally can't listen to, you know, like, light jazz when you're on your own patio," said Wygmans, who ran a noisy Burlington music venue called Club Toast with his brother before he bought his Charlotte home in 2005. Now he said he has to worry that his grown-up soundtrack will upset brides and grooms. "It's crazy," he said of the "wedding factory" next door.
After two years of haggling, the Wygmans and Gaujacs settled their lawsuit in January: They agreed to split the cost of a cedar hedge.
But that's the extent of their cooperation.
"They realized they had to settle because we had all this proof," Gaujac said, referring to numerous people who witnessed the chain saw incident.
Not so, said Wygmans, who insists he stopped fighting only because his family spent $30,000 on legal bills and ran out of money.
The Old Lantern conflict lives on in related legal actions that have yet to be resolved. The venue was built before the town adopted zoning regulations, so it's exempt from most of them.
Wygmans and at least four other neighbors have challenged that "grandfathered" status by claiming that the venue is not the occasional event hall it once was. Rather, they point out, it's a restaurant that serves 350 people. So far, Charlotte's zoning administrators have rejected the suggestion that there has been a change of use at the Lantern, the result of which would be more regulation and greater scrutiny.
Last year the Gaujacs took a bold step toward legitimizing their status: They started a petition to create a zoning change that would specifically authorize an event hall on their property. The Charlotte Planning Commission is now studying possible language for an ordinance that would go to the voters for final approval.
Charlotte has changed over the years. Once a community of dairy farmers and summer residents who congregated in camps along Lake Champlain's rugged shoreline, the town has attracted newcomers over the decades, many of whom have built million-dollar homes. The median family income hit $116,230 last year, the third highest for any municipality in the state, according to the Vermont Department of Taxes.
Nearly 4,000 people now call the place home. But while they enjoy pastoral views of Lake Champlain, mountains and sweeping pastures that are just turning green, Charlotte residents have to leave town to shop for a cocktail dress, go to a full-service grocery store or sit at a pub. Local leaders have used strict zoning and aggressive land conservation to protect the Route 7 corridor, making it a largely sprawl-free zone.
The barn-red, wooden, 8,000-square-foot Old Lantern remains a rare place to congregate. Dairy farmers Mary and Earl Burns, who are now deceased, built it in 1963 after their own barn burned down, according to their daughter, Linda Burns Blake.
"They got together with my uncles and my aunt, and we all decided to build a recreation hall," she said.
Her parents acquired a barn in Jericho and reassembled it on their property in Charlotte. Blake was about 16 when the Old Lantern first opened its doors, looking much like it does now — minus the glittery disco ball that is suspended from the exposed ceiling timbers. With wooden benches along the sides, the spacious room can accommodate dozens of tables for sit-down dinners and still allow plenty of space for dancing.
- The Old Lantern
In Blake's memory, everyone in the family cooked and served for the weddings, banquets and square dances that happened there. Sunday mornings, they cleaned up and polished the maple plank dance floor — once one of the largest and best constructed in the state. Then they would have a party for themselves.
"On Sunday evenings we would turn on the music, on low, and we'd all roller-skate, all evening long," Blake recalled.
She met her future husband, Gary Blake, while serving food at a Saturday square dance. "I got her to come out from behind the counter and dance with me one time," he said. "We've been together ever since." The couple, who live in Georgia, Vt., held their wedding party at the Lantern in 1972.
The Burns family also ran a campground on their land, which at one point stretched east from Greenbush Road to Route 7, across meadowlands and fields that are now mostly conserved.
The campground had tent sites and hookups for RVs. The Lantern property was a busy place, with concerts and other events as well as weddings, Linda Blake said. "It's such a large hall. We could accommodate a lot of people. We would do 600 at a whack. And sometimes we would have two wedding parties going on at the same time."
The Burns' property was divided up in a complicated transaction and conservation project in the 1990s. Antiques dealer and appraiser Jim Dickerson owned the Lantern with two partners from 2000 to 2006. Dickerson had first visited the place in the 1970s as a high school student and, after college, rented the property to hold auctions. The barn hasn't changed much.
"I think the interior, it really is basically the same as it was the day they built it. Over the years, all the wood just got a wonderful old brown patina, and that's where it is now," Dickerson said.
He can't understand the neighbors' complaints.
"Hey, if you don't like the sound of noisy kids, you better not buy the house next to the playground at the school," Dickerson said.
Dickerson sold to the Gaujacs, a couple who knows the restaurant business. French-born Roland worked at a Four Seasons hotel in Newport Beach, Calif., and as a private chef. He and Lisa met in 1984 in Los Angeles. "It was a blind date in a bar," she said. "And we eloped, like, eight weeks later."
They made their way to Vermont and, in 1995, opened a restaurant in New Haven, the 1796 House at Roland's Place. They sold it a few years after they bought the Lantern.
In 2012, the Gaujacs built a small inn on the property, which Wygmans and another neighbor family, Karen and Mike Frost, also challenged. The additional structure helped the Gaujacs grow their business, as has the national trend for barn weddings.
Robert Mack, a farmer and former selectboard member who lives on the south side of the Lantern property, said the Gaujacs are good neighbors. Mack disagrees with those who are raising concerns. "It's just a lot of NIMBYism," Mack said.
Other neighbors would counter: Why does one property in Charlotte get special treatment? In a 2015 letter, the Wygmans and Karen Frost said 2009 upgrades to the Lantern's small kitchen on the north side of the building should have required multiple permits. Frost asked the town to "minimize the negative impacts of these changes on the neighbors."
Two more neighbors, Adrian and Alison Wolverton, added their voices. They appealed a town zoning administrator's decision that changes to the kitchen at the Old Lantern did not constitute a change of use. The Wolvertons argued that by improving the kitchen so all the food could be cooked on-site, the Gaujacs had made the facility more like a restaurant than an event hall. Their appeal is pending in the Environmental Division of Vermont Superior Court.
Many Charlotte residents have supported the Lantern at zoning hearings. But they haven't been so welcoming of other proposed venues.
Late last year, neighbors circulated a petition against an event barn proposed for 783 Mt. Philo Road. The Charlotte Zoning Board of Adjustment turned the project down in December. Another event barn on the west side of Route 7 won approval in early 2016, but neighbors have appealed that decision to the Environmental Division. It has yet to open.
Meanwhile, the Gaujacs said they have spent more than $70,000 on legal bills. They hired a sound engineer to take decibel readings in an effort to mediate a dispute over noise with the Wolvertons. A compromise is forthcoming, according to Lisa Gaujac.
None of this behind-the-scenes legal drama is keeping bridal parties away from the vintage dance floor in Charlotte. Couples from around the East Coast are lining up like bridesmaids in a conga line to book the Old Lantern. Dates are already reserved for many Saturdays in the summer and autumn — not only this year, but next.Correction, June 5, 2017: There been no public vote on the petition to change the zoning at the Old Lantern. An earlier version of this story contained an error.