Dispute between Norwich and unpermitted wedding venue owner escalates
Norwich — A long-running, bitter dispute is escalating between the city and the owner of the Mount Crescent House mansion, a large event venue and short-term rental facility that has prompted numerous neighbors' complaints and the city has cited for violating permits and zoning regulations.
Owner Natalie Huey Min Lee counters that a host of city and state officials and attorneys, along with private parties, are in collusion to damage or destroy her business while she is trying to improve the city. She said she soon will file an extensive federal criminal racketeering complaint against numerous city and state officials and private individuals.
City officials are stepping up enforcement against Mount Crescent LLC, as wedding planners and couples who have booked the mansion scramble to find alternative venues during the already restrictive COVID-19 pandemic.
The latest dispute centers on Lee’s use of the eight-bedroom, stately 1870 Italianate mansion and yard at 270 Broadway as a wedding and large events venue, a hotel and assembly use that violates residential zoning regulations and her July 2015 special permit for a bed and breakfast inn.
Lee this past week laughed at those designations and accused the city of hypocrisy for calling the use illegal, while the assessor’s office in January changed her property on the city tax records to “motel” and “commercial" without notifying her. The tax record also graded the restored brick mansion as in “below average” condition, with the interior rooms and bathrooms as "average." Lee said prospective brides have screamed with glee at the beauty of the rooms.
Lee accused the city of changing the tax record to interfere with her plan to refinance her mortgage.
She rarely mentions city officials without adjectives such as “corrupt” or “stupid.”
City officials contend Lee has been uncooperative, defiant and threatening.
Lee said the city forced her to market the property as a short-term rental by refusing to issue her a certificate of occupancy for the bed and breakfast in 2014 without either barricading off the four bedrooms on the third floor or cutting holes through floors, brick walls and ceilings to install unsightly sprinklers, which would destroy the historical character — "over my dead body," she said.
Now, she said she has found “a niche market" for weddings and short-term rentals, with some guests staying in other nearby short-term rental properties. Instead of trying to shut her down, Lee said the city should embrace her business model to revitalize the city and save historical homes.
“I’m trying to transform Norwich into a destination for weddings in the beautiful city of Norwich,” Lee said. “I’m continuing acquisitions of nearby properties to do the same thing, short-term rentals and for weddings.”
On Sept. 11, city Zoning Enforcement Officer Richard Shuck issued a stop work order to a vendor who was erecting a banquet tent for a wedding. The city is denying permits to other tent vendors for the property.
Numerous email exchanges between city officials and Lee dating back to 2017, when the city issued the notice of violation, show increased frustration by both parties. City officials have outlined specific violations: short-term rental and large event venue, failure to provide parking, failure to obtain permits.
Lee accuses city departments of operating a “Fraud Club” and threatens to file a federal criminal complaint under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.
In 2019, City Planner Deanna Rhodes offered to help resolve the issues.
“The City of Norwich is well aware of the many events that have been hosted on the site,” Rhodes wrote to Lee, “and, although not currently permitted, I would like to personally work with you to find a way to support and permit this type of use. It is my intention to draft new zoning regulations for consideration and adoption by the City Council that would make it easier to apply to operate an event venue on a property with an existing large historic home, or within one of the many historic districts.”
Lee did not respond to Rhodes’ letter, and the city did not initially pursue enforcement of the 2017 violation until this year.
Shuck issued a cease and desist order Feb. 3 citing the 2017 notice of violation. “Since issuance of the Notice of Violation in 2017, the correspondences received mostly consisted primarily of diatribes against public officials and defiance against departments within the city,” he wrote in the cease and desist letter. “There has been no movement to demonstrate any intention to voluntarily comply.”
Shuck wrote that enforcement could include revoking the bed and breakfast approval and potential legal action.
On Sept. 18, Lee sent an email to more than a dozen city and state officials saying she will file a racketeering complaint.
“Here, I am demanding the City of Norwich email and mail an apology letter declaring the Cease and Desist Order Void and Null by Friday, September 18,” Lee wrote.
“I suggest you immediately start complying with local and state laws or there will be consequences,” City Council President Mark Bettencourt wrote in response. “I don’t take kindly to threats and you will gain no pardon from making empty threats and only accelerate the process to your detriment.”
Mount Crescent House continues to host weddings and large parties, including one held Saturday.
“This commercial activity has become a serious intrusion into my residential neighborhood,” Washington Street resident Paul Rak, whose property backs to the Mount Crescent House property, wrote to Shuck on Aug. 17. “There are events almost every weekend accompanied by very loud music that often makes the use of my backyard problematic.”
Rak said he called police once for extremely loud music.
According to police dispatch logs, from June 20 through Aug. 15, police were called to Mount Crescent House seven times, including twice on Aug. 15, when police received six calls for a wedding with about 100 people. Less than an hour later, police returned for a “still noise” call. Other complaints have included loud music, noise and fireworks. On July 26 a caller described “extremely loud music for approximately 6 hours,” and a caller on July 5 reported “a large party bus in the road.”
“It’s a great place for weddings,” neighbor Rak said, “but you have to do it in a way that doesn’t interfere with the neighbors.”
Rebecca and Scott Sember of Ansonia had their Oct. 3 wedding booked at Mount Crescent House, but she said when Airbnb announced it would no longer allow its listings to be used for large events, Sember said Lee did not respond to her repeated attempts to check on the status of their booking, adding to her COVID-19 anxieties.
Scott Sember contacted the city zoning office Aug. 24 and learned of the cease and desist order. So, working with wedding planner Debbie White-Palmer of DWP Events, the couple found a venue in Bethany and had a wonderful wedding and reception, Rebecca Sember said.
The couple now is battling with Lee to try to get her deposit refunded.
White-Palmer, who also is in disputes with Lee, said she “lost” six weddings because of the zoning disputes surrounding Mount Crescent House.
“This year has really been difficult, of course,” White-Palmer said. “With COVID-19, a lot of couples needed to find a place to be outside.”
When the city banned tents at Mount Crescent House, couples sought new venues, White-Palmer said. Three couples kept her as their planner, and she found new venues throughout the state.
Lee accused White-Palmer of colluding with the city to scare wedding couples into canceling their bookings in retaliation after Lee “fired” White-Palmer as the Mount Crescent in-house event planner.
White-Palmer flatly denied the accusation, said she never worked for Lee and thus could not have been “fired.” She said she urged her wedding clients to contact city officials on the status of Mount Crescent House. She asked for copies of the cease and desist order and obtained the police dispatch logs, as well.
White-Palmer still has three weddings booked for Mount Crescent House in 2021 and told the couples she doesn’t know how it will turn out.
“You don’t mess with people’s wedding days, especially during COVID,” White-Palmer said. “People are trying to do their best to stick to the guidelines.”