Council lukewarm on home business regulation update
March 22, 2012
By Caleb Heeringa
New: March 22, 11:18 a.m.
A plan to rewrite regulations surrounding home businesses seems likely to get an overhaul by the City Council.
After months of deliberation, the Planning Commission proposed a set of rules governing how the businesses should operate. Some on the City Council are lukewarm to the ideas, saying they favor businesses over homeowners.
Several councilmembers asked Community Development Director Kamuron Gurol and Planning Commission Chairman Joe Lipinsky pointed questions about the commission’s recommended ordinance, which relaxes regulations on size and business models of the thousands of home-based businesses in the city of Sammamish. The commission’s suggested ordinance gives Gurol and his staff more leeway in determining whether a home business fits with the surrounding residential neighborhood.
Lipinsky said the commission, which held a half-dozen meetings on the subject, heard from numerous home business owners in Sammamish – from artists to consultants to hairdressers – all of whom urged a less restrictive standard that allows the city to take each proposed business on a case-by-case basis.
Senior Planner Evan Maxim said the city has issued licenses to more than 4,000 home businesses in the city, though it’s likely that not all of those businesses are still active. A bit more than 1,600 Sammamish residents said they worked from their homes on the 2010 federal census – more than 7 percent of the workforce in the city.
“The city of Sammamish is filled with professionals that have home businesses,” Lipinsky said. “We got public input from the beginning to the end of this process and it was moving us in this direction.”
Councilman Tom Vance, himself a former chairman of the planning commission, said he didn’t think the commission got enough input from neighbors negatively affected by a highly active home business. The Sammamish Chamber of Commerce spread the word about the commission’s meetings on the subject.
“What you get (during public input) is people most interested in a particular position showing up,” Vance said. “What you didn’t get a lot of is the neighborhood folks.”
Vance said he was opposed to the commission’s recommendation that the city do away with limits on the amount of floor space in the home devoted to business. The city’s current regulations require that no more than 20 percent of a home be devoted to the business for a small-scale “home occupation” business like a lawyer or consultant. For larger-impact businesses – a winery or nursery, for example – no more than half of the floor area of the home can be devoted to the business under the current regulations.
“Having a cot in the back room that you sleep on does not necessarily make it a home and having a cot in the back room is not necessarily compatible with a neighborhood,” Vance said.
Gurol said he or his staff would have a hard time approving such a home business.
“If someone wanted to use 80 percent of their structure for business and had a cot in the back bedroom and say that was their residence, I think I’d have a hard time approving that as compatible (with the neighborhood),” Gurol said.
He added that any potentially high-impact business would have to apply for a conditional use permit, which would allow the city to gather input from neighbors and possibly impose restrictions, such as limiting the hours of operation or amount of customers that can come and go.
While the proposed code leaves it up to city staff to determine whether a potential home business is compatible with the neighborhood, it is not without requirements. A “Type 2” – or potentially high impact – business would be required to ensure that business activity is not occurring within 20 feet of property lines and that any activity going on outdoors not be visible from adjacent properties or a public street.
No business types are expressly prohibited by the proposed code, which is a change from the current regulations. The code currently forbids automobile repair or painting and any business that requires the “parking or storage of heavy equipment” or “storage of building materials for other properties” in residential areas.
Lipinsky told the council that the commission felt such outright bans didn’t make sense, given the rural nature and multi-acre lots of some parts of the city. He pointed to the example of someone who lives on a five-acre lot and operates a small-scale business restoring antique vehicles. The proposed code would allow such a home business if the applicant could prove their business would not bother neighbors.
Mayor Tom Odell questioned why the council was reviewing the ordinance in the first place.
“There’s the old saying: ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it;’ what are we trying to fix here?” he asked.
Gurol said there are current home businesses that have been operating in the city for a long time with no problems but may not be in compliance with some of the standards in the current regulations. The requirements on the floor area devoted to business, in particular, don’t necessarily reflect the impact on a neighborhood.
“Do we have restrictions in the code that are overly restrictive and not really advancing a public policy purpose?” he asked. “When one business is using 20 percent of their floor area and another is using 22 percent – it’s tough to see any real difference there. We’re trying to make sure we’re friendly to home businesses while still having compatibility with the neighborhood.”
Odell said he was concerned that the proposed code left too much up to the subjective opinions of city staff, which could mean more legal challenges from aggrieved neighbors.
“As I read through this, it struck me that there’s a lot of wiggle room in here that does not exist today,” Odell said. “Maybe it doesn’t exist for a reason. Are we setting ourselves up for future contested decisions that go to the Hearing Examiner?”
Councilman Ramiro Valderrama praised the commission’s work and the added flexibility in the proposed code.
Councilwoman Nancy Whitten echoed the concerns of Odell and Vance.
“I like the (subjective) approach in some respects, but to ditch and throw out what we had – I’m not sure that’s the way to go,” she said. “There’s no objective criteria here. The subjective nature of the ordinance concerns me.”
The council is scheduled to discuss the home business regulations at their May 1 and May 14 meetings.