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Michaela Bigelow and Nicholas Passarella, both 21, had a Wine Country wedding this month that they will long remember, even though it was without world-class vineyard views and champagne toasts.

Like some 1,000 couples per year, they opted for a no-frills wedding at the Sonoma County Clerk-Recorder-Assessor’s office in Santa Rosa, where romance is rich and weddings are cheap. A budget-friendly fee of $153 covers a marriage license, a marriage certificate and a brief but sincere civil ceremony.

The Passarellas were married in about five minutes during a Friday afternoon ceremony July 21, sealing their vows and sharing their joy with a passionate kiss.

“It’s a pretty quick ceremony, but we get lots of compliments on it,” said Chief Deputy Clerk-Recorder and Deputy Marriage Commissioner Deva Marie Proto.

“This is the no-fuss wedding. There’s no planning, it’s easy and non-stressful and affordable, and still fun,” she said. “There are lots of emotions. There’s giggles and tears and lots of applause (as unions become official).”

Proto, 36, is among department staffers who perform marriage ceremonies in a private room dubbed the Wedding Room. It’s been open in its current location on Fiscal Drive since early July, when the department moved.

The Wedding Room is an upgraded version of one previously used for civil ceremonies. An outdoor area for ceremonies should be ready sometime in August, pet-friendly and accommodating more guests.

With bench seating for 17 and simple decorations of framed artwork and a few planters with artificial flowers and ferns, the Wedding Room is far from fancy — but nice enough for couples from every walk of life.

Under a trellis draped with a garland of white roses, couples like the Passarellas are joined in union with the same legal authority as those who spend thousands of dollars — or tens of thousands — on elaborate weddings.

Selecting a civil ceremony isn’t always about budgets, though. Even those who can easily afford a fancy wedding declare their love and devotion in the Wedding Room.

“It’s everybody,” Proto said. “We have very young couples and couples in their 80s and 90s, and they’re adorable. We have heterosexual couples and homosexual couples and every race and age group, and I think every income level.”

Ceremonies can be performed in English and Spanish any weekday the county offices are open, with services booked every half hour. That means no weddings on major holidays, but Valentine’s Day, Halloween and New Year’s Eve are in high demand. Dates with repeating numbers — like the recent 7/17/17 — are another big draw for couples seeking an unforgettable anniversary.

For the Passarellas, who met as young teens at a church youth group in Virginia, tying the knot at the county Wedding Room was a convenient way to make their union official. The groom, nearing his promotion as a Petty Officer Third Class, is stationed at the Coast Guard Training Center at Two Rock near Petaluma; his bride is a police officer in North Carolina.

“We didn’t want to do anything big right now because he’s out here,” said Michaela Passarella (taking her husband’s last name), noting the inconvenience and expense of hosting a wedding far from loved ones. Friends and fellow Coast Guard Seamen Caelan Allison, 19, of Colorado, and Austin McElwain, 22, of Florida, were the ceremony witnesses and only invited guests.

The simplicity of the civil ceremony was ideal for the couple.

Last year 1,088 marriages were performed, each memorable and unique not only to the couples who were united, but to the commissioners who officiated.

It’s a study in human nature, with Proto and her staff witnessing everything from dogs dressed in formal attire to couples outfitted in clothing suitable for backyard gardening.

“We’ve had people come in full ballroom gowns with matching bridesmaids and people in flipflops and dirty cutoff jeans,” Proto said. “You get to see everybody in here.”

She’s hopeful everyone is madly in love but knows some weddings are stepped up “for health insurance or deployment reasons.” Some New Year’s Eve weddings unite those “looking for a tax break at the end of the year.” Marriages are performed without judgment and with the hope couples will live happily ever after.

For the record, pets cannot serve as witnesses or attend indoor ceremonies.

One couple opted for a confidential marriage license (with no witnesses required) after discovering their two beloved Labrador-retriever mixes couldn’t go indoors or stand (or sit) up for them.

Proto, ever a good sport, performed the couple’s ceremony outdoors in the rain, under umbrellas, so the dogs could be in attendance.

“They were their babies,” Proto said.

People can, however, dress up for their vows as animals or superheroes or any other costumed characters. One couple came in wearing fox ears and tails.

Halloween weddings bring out those with creativity and a strong sense of humor. Even those officiating weddings like to have some Halloween fun, with department employees sometimes electing to dress in themed costumes. One year, minions were popular officiants; another year Disney princesses presided over Halloween vows.

Alma Roman has a framed photograph of an especially touching ceremony she performed — in Cinderella costume — for two older men who’d been a couple since the 1950s. They were finally married in a state-sanctioned union two years ago, with a kindhearted princess declaring them legal spouses.

Julianna Garfia also performed a ceremony for two men who’d long been together as a devoted couple. They came into the county office on an especially busy summer day in 2012 – on Garfia’s birthday – but she managed to squeeze in one more ceremony.

When the couple returned later that day, Garfia worried there had been an error in their paperwork. Instead, they presented her with a decorated birthday cake, a token of their appreciation.

Every year since, the Santa Rosa couple marks their anniversary by delivering Garfia a birthday cake.

Judith Sevilla has touching stories as well, including one from just a few months ago.

She officiated for a couple who had been high school sweethearts but ended up marrying others and having children with those spouses. Circumstances brought them back together decades later, and they ended up exchanging vows in the Wedding Room.

“I thought that was just in the movies,” Sevilla said.

Proto is happy the department can be a part of a memorable occasion for so many people, and pleased the process is welcoming to everyone.

“I think there are lots of happy surprises,” she said. “Sometimes people have the misconception thinking they’re getting married at the County Clerk’s office in front of strangers or that it’s very institutional or very cold.”

That’s wrong on all counts, she said. Instead, couples bring their enthusiasm, love and anticipation with them.

“We try to give them an experience they’ll cherish,” Proto said.

Some couples are giddy as they exchange “I do’s,” while others are solemn and serious.

“Everyone expresses joy in different ways,” Proto said. “It’s really fun to see that. It’s heartwarming. It’s always a happy experience. Every couple is different.”

For more information about Sonoma County civil wedding ceremonies, call 707-565-3700 or visit http://sonomacounty.ca.gov/CRA/Clerk-Recorder/Marriage-Ceremonies/.

Contact Towns Correspondent Dianne Reber Hart at sonomatowns@gmail.com.

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