Lucas Oil Products Inc. owners Forrest and Charlotte Lucas might not have formal permission from the city of Carmel to host charity fundraisers and other social gatherings on their property, but that’s not stopping the couple from continuing the parties.
In September, the Carmel Board of Zoning Appeals denied a variance request from the Lucases to allow for semi-public events—including soirees benefiting not-for-profits, anniversary parties, birthday celebrations, political fundraisers and weddings—to take place on their massive estate at 1143 W. 116th St..
The Lucases have hosted such events since 2011, but did not have special permitting or commercial zoning that a traditional event center would require.
City officials asked the Lucases to apply for the variances after a similar request from tech entrepreneur and former neighbor Scott Jones brought the issue to light.
Nearly 30 nearby residents spoke publicly, wrote a letter or signed a petition opposing the request from the Lucases. Neighbors complained about the noise from events, lights from traffic, frequency of the parties and frustration with the city for allowing the Lucases to continue without proper approval for years.
Forrest Lucas told IBJ that those criticisms were “all lies.”
He said neighbors have never personally voiced concerns to him or his wife about the parties.
“There’s really nothing to fuss about,” Lucas said. “We never had any complaints.”
The Lucases acquired their 33-acre property, which was formerly home to Conseco Inc. co-founder Stephen Hilbert, in 2010. And, in May 2016, they purchased the adjacent estate of Nancy Irsay, which brought their total property to more than 70 acres.
The Irsay tract included an 8,600-square-foot home and a 10,000-square-foot pole barn known as the Robert Irsay Pavilion, which the Lucases have been using for events.
During the variance request process, the Lucases agreed to a handful of commitments, including limiting the number of events per year, restricting the time of the events, designating when the sound system would be shut off and capping the guest list at 700 attendees.
Tim Ochs, a partner at Ice Miller LLP who represented the Lucases, said the property is unique and it would be “truly a waste” if it wasn’t shared with the community.
Lucas said he and his wife have had more events on the property since the zoning decision, and they plan to continue to operate as usual because their attorney believes they don’t actually need permission from the city.
“As far as we’re concerned, everything we’re doing is perfectly legal,” Lucas said. “We’re not breaking any laws.”
The question over the legality of the events came up during September's Board of Zoning Appeals meeting. John Molitor, legal counsel for the board, disagreed that all the parties already were allowed.
Molitor said residents are legally allowed to have people visit their property for events, but they can’t have a catering business operating regularly, with visitors coming and going at all hours. Doing so requires commercial zoning and other rules that apply to businesses, he said.
Lucas said he hasn’t talked to the city about his intention to continue hosting events. If another issue comes up, it will be addressed, he said.
For now, the city appears to be OK with the situation because the Lucases don’t charge rental fees. Groups or individuals holding the event pay only for the catering or other third-party costs.
"This property is not zoned as a business," Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard said in a written statement. "If he charges for events, it is clearly operating as a business. If he isn't charging, it is no different than opening one's homes for a dinner party."