On August 8, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Keith Lundin ruled in favor of Richard Demonbreun in his suit against Ann Coleman regarding issues discussed in the story below. To read a copy of the ruling, click here.
Along the tranquil, tree-lined streets in Woodland-in-Waverly, trouble is brewing. The neighborhood’s most infamous party planner and homeowner is back in town, and the welcome party isn’t exactly knocking on the beveled glass door of 746 Benton Ave. with baked goods in hand.
When it comes to Richard Demonbreun, who turned the home into a bed-and-breakfast and event venue in 2000, it’s clear that you can’t keep a good man down—or in this case, out of the neighborhood. But you can make it damn difficult for him to pick up where he left off.
Last spring Demonbreun—an attorney and direct descendant of Timothy Demonbreun, one of early Nashville’s first settlers—first sold his stately abode to frenemy Ann Coleman, who some in the neighborhood dubbed “little Miss Sunshine.” She didn’t exactly have a tough act to follow. In the more than half a decade that Demonbreun held weddings and events at the home, neighbors say he blatantly violated conditions outlined in his permit by having multiple events a week, not limiting guest numbers and allowing guests to park up and down the street rather than providing a valet.
Now like a movie villain on the prowl, he’s back and, even worse, restarting his business without a permit, which theoretically means he can’t book any events. Not that it’s stopped him before. When the zoning board revoked his first permit for the aforementioned violations, Demonbreun defied the ruling and party central kept on trucking.
Even upon his departure from the neighborhood, Demonbreun left Coleman, and the brides who had booked weddings at his home and paid deposits for the events before his departure, with an unpleasant parting gift—one that, to this day, he denies is his fault. As reported here (“Broken Vows,” June 26, 2007), a handful of brides who had already paid deposits for their big days showed up on Coleman’s doorstep expecting the quaint Southern weddings Demonbreun promised them. While Coleman honored some contracts, several bridezillas were left fuming at the altar. Both Demonbreun and Coleman said the other pocketed the deposit refunds owed to the brides.
But one thing is clear: Coleman never made a mortgage payment to Demonbreun. And last month, a bankruptcy judge ordered Coleman to vacate the home and return the property back to Demonbreun, who is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Coleman admits that she never wrote a check toward the nearly $1.65 million she owes Demonbreun because she was waiting to work out issues with her loan. Demonbreun, though, says she planned all along to have clients first pay in cash that she’d pocket and then leave with his client list, and without ever making a payment.
When she hears this, Coleman laughs, calls Demonbreun a “goober” and says that 746 Benton simply attracts controversy. “You know, I didn’t start the controversy,” she says. “I didn’t plant the lightning rod.” Which doesn’t explain why she didn’t write the check.
None of this he-said-she-said mess really matters anymore—at least, not to the Woodland-in-Waverly neighbors. All they know is that in the year Demonbreun was away, the neighborhood was a little more livable.
William Cochran, who has lived on Benton Avenue with his family since 2000, says he and his neighbors have had “the most peaceful, civil year” since their time in the neighborhood. “It’s certainly dispiriting after a year of fresh air and goodwill,” he says of Demonbreun’s return.
And Cochran knows ill will. When Demonbreun learned that Cochran wanted more restrictions placed on the event venue, he wrote Cochran a series of railing screeds in which he called Cochran an “asshole” and a “pompous bastard” who “grew up with a silver spoon stuck up [his] ass.”
Now the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) has refused to grant Demonbreun a new permit. On March 20, only one of the five members present voted in favor of the wedding host with a sketchy past. Now his request will remain on the docket for 30 days, during which time board members can change their vote. That’s unlikely given his contentious interaction with the board. In a meeting last year, a new BZA member asked for a recap of the board’s dealings with Demonbreun, and the board laughed as one member said, “Oh, please no!”
Demonbreun is set to appeal the board’s ruling to a circuit court. “I’m going to rebuild my business, and I’m going to make it what it was before Ms. Coleman came into the picture,” he says. “And you can be assured that the vast majority of neighbors in this neighborhood support what I do.... Talk to people and ask them, ‘Where’s the beef?’ ”
The beef used to be that neighbors didn’t want any commercial activity in the home. But even Cochran, who once mowed his lawn during one of Demonbreun’s wedding ceremonies—an act that prompted Demonbreun to sue him—says he and other neighbors have had a change of heart. In recent weeks, Woodland neighbors presented nearly 40 signed letters to the BZA to say they support events at the home, unless Demonbreun’s runnning the joint.
“It’s not the home, it’s not the permit, it’s the person,” Cochran says. “It is our hope that now that he has been denied or has not received a permit and cannot legally generate the kind of revenue that he would need to hold on to the house, that the bankruptcy court would make the decision to sell off the house to pay off the many creditors.”
Demonbreun’s Woodland dealings have been flush with more diva drama than The Hills. Demonbreun says he bought the ramshackle house in 1995 and made $1.6 million in improvements to save it from condemnation, undoubtedly upping his neighbors’ property values.
But since 2000, when Demonbreun first got a special BZA permit to host events, residents have been a little testy. As reported here (“A War in Woodland,” June 27, 2002), the neighbors stormed zoning board meetings to complain that Demonbreun repeatedly violated conditions of his permit.
The board revoked Demonbreun’s permit but gave him another chance to get things right when they issued another to him in 2002. When neighbors said he was up to his old tricks, the zoning board slapped Demonbreun with citations and began to limit severely his ability to host weddings. (The board would not allow weddings on the front lawn or amplified music outside, to name a few restrictions.)
Even given all this, Demonbreun calls his first run in the home a “wonderful success” and says he plans to do a lot for the neighborhood upon his return. He is also intent on setting the record straight as far as his reputation is concerned. “I’m a lawyer, but I’m a person,” he says, in the same conversation in which he threatens to sue the Scene. “I went to seminary a year after law school. My heart belongs to God. I want to do what’s right. I have never done anything to hurt anybody.”
But old habits die hard.
When speaking of Cochran, Demonbreun channels the silver spoon comment. “I didn’t grow up in Belle Meade, going to [Montgomery Bell Academy], going to the University of North Carolina, getting my MBA at Vanderbilt,” he says. “Mr. Cochran can live anywhere in Nashville he wanted to.... I think it’s really easy to see that the real problem here is Mr. Cochran and the fact that he has relentlessly complained about my operation and had no basis to do so. Those are the facts.”
Cochran is gearing up for the sequel. He says that unless Demonbreun has had “some type of a Road to Damascus experience,” life on Benton Avenue won’t get any more pleasant anytime soon. “We’ll be facing the prospect of more years of litigation and permit abuse and contention and strife,” he says. “I hope that won’t come to pass, but I think it could.”
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