Jun. 27—The Hacienda Doña Andrea de Santa Fe's stuccoed curves, antique roof tiles and heavy wooden doors exude a warm, old-world charm.
They also belie the building's true age.
"I built it from the ground up," owner Maximiliano Contreras said, adding he and his late wife, Andrea, designed and constructed it together in the late 1990s. "Made it look like it had been there forever."
He opened the property as a bed-and-breakfast after Andrea's death in 2000.
Over the years, the rambling, multilevel venue — perched atop a piñon-dotted knoll in the foothills of the Ortiz Mountains south of Madrid — has become a popular wedding destination. It offers panoramic views of the Galisteo Basin.
Hundreds of brides and grooms have celebrated their nuptials there in the last decade.
"We call it the 'happy place,' " Contreras said. "It was a built as a place for people to get together."
But Contreras, 80, may have to quit the wedding business. The popular hacienda is now at the center of an escalating dispute between him and some of his neighbors over the noise, water use and fire hazards nearby residents argue his guests have brought to their quiet enclave.
The bitter feud led Santa Fe County officials to determine the property has been operating for years outside the bounds of its land-use permit and has spilled into civil and criminal courts — including a lawsuit the hacienda filed against county officials.
"We moved here nine years ago to escape city life and teach our children to learn from and honor the land," a neighbor wrote in a letter to county land use officials in April. "In the time that we have lived here, each year the weddings at the Hacienda Doña Andrea have become louder and more frequent."
One neighbor faces criminal trespass charges — and is prevented by a restraining order from entering the property — after she was accused of storming into a wedding reception at the hacienda in late April and yelling about the loud music.
In early May, a person who lives at the same address as the woman facing charges filed a lawsuit against the hacienda alleging breach of contract. It accused the hacienda of violating the covenants of the Vista del Oro subdivision.
Tensions between the neighbors came to a head last fall following several days of filming at the wedding venue, which some said caused traffic snarls.
County officials reviewing the neighbors' complaints discovered the permit violation.
"The Hacienda had an approval from 1999 that allowed use of the property for a 9 bedroom B&B and small scale retreat with a limit of no more than 18 people on site," county Operations Manager Sara Smith wrote in a recent email.
Instead, she wrote, it was hosting weddings of up to 180 people.
The discovery has forced Contreras — and his current wife, Britt Contreras — to scramble to come up with workarounds allowing them to honor their commitment to more than 40 couples who planned to wed at the hacienda in 2022.
The county issued more than a dozen special-use permits earlier this year authorizing the hacienda to host already booked spring weddings, while the Contrerases came up with a site plan application they hoped would expand their permitted uses to include weddings.
But after continued pushback from neighbors during a public meeting in April, the couple said, they amended the application to simply seek permission to finish out the year's wedding season, and then they would agree to operate only as a bed-and-breakfast.
"We would like to work something out with the county and our neighbors that would allow us to continue to do weddings there, but we don't want to be the bad people," Maximiliano Contreras said in an interview.
County staff recommended approval of the proposal, according to documents, and it could have been approved through an administrative process. But Growth Management Director Penny Ellis-Green decided to bump the decision up the chain of command, asking the county Planning Commission to consider the couple's application at a June 16 meeting.
Britt Contreras told the Planning Commission the hacienda had more bookings than usual this year because many couples had postponed their celebrations due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The bookings were made in 2020 and 2021, she said, and the couple hasn't accepted any new requests since they became aware of the permit problem in November.
Several couples canceled their weddings after learning the county's case-by-case special event permits require their events to end at 9 p.m., she said.
The permits also forbid smoking and require the Contrerases to increase their parking area and fire suppression system, which the couple said they've done.
Britt Contreras said her husband was proud of having built the hacienda and is distressed by the animosity between his neighbors, some of whom he's known for years.
Though, Maximiliano Contreras said only a few neighbors — part-time residents who recently moved to the area — are actively fighting the hacienda.
Nearly a dozen residents, several who said they've lived in the area for decades, told the Planning Commission the noise and traffic has gotten out of hand. After hearing their testimony, the commission voted unanimously to deny the Contrerases' proposed site plan and "cancel all weddings for the remainder of 2022."
Commissioner J.J. Gonzales — who made the motion to deny the application — said his reasons for rejecting the plan were several alleged violations of sound and water use restrictions in the special-use permits.
Nathan Manzanares of Siebert and Associates, the land planning firm representing the Contrerases in their application, said in an interview the hacienda has never been issued a notice of violation.
The Planning Commission's ruling — and a subsequent determination by Ellis-Green that the decision prevented the county from issuing any more special-use permits for weddings this year — prompted Hacienda Doña Andrea de Santa Fe LLC to file a lawsuit against Ellis-Green and the county.
The company argues in a June 17 court filing the site plan and special-use permits should have been handled through administrative processes that require approval if applicants meet certain criteria and never should have gone before the Planning Commission.
"The Planning Commission appeared to deny the application on the basis of incompatibility with the surrounding area," attorney Christopher Graeser wrote in the complaint. "However, incompatibility is not a specified code criteria."
The complaint asks the court to order the county to immediately issue special-use permits to the Contrerases and approve the couple's site plan on the basis that both meet county codes.
The couple also intend to appeal the Planning Commission's decision to the County Commission, Manzaneres said, but won't be able to make their case until a meeting in late July.
In the meantime, Hacienda Doña Andrea faced a tough decision: disappoint several couples who had scheduled June weddings there or operate outside the law by hosting them, something Maximiliano Contreras said he was prepared to do.
"I'm willing to go to jail," he said.
It appears that won't be necessary.
Graeser said Thursday county officials have "rethought" their original position and seem willing to continue issuing special-use permits for the weddings on a case-by-case basis, at least until the County Commission can consider the Contrerases' appeal.
The reversal left them with only a little cause for celebration.
Britt Contreras said high costs for attorneys, experts and agents to represent them in the fight mean they are losing money operating the hacienda this year.
"But we want the weddings to go through," she said.
Manzaneres told the Planning Commission earlier this month, "We are giving up our right do to this for the foreseeable future so no one has to suffer and have their wedding canceled."
He added: "At the end of the day, it's the innocent brides and grooms that are going to pay for this."