Monday, January 25, 2016

[A TIMELY RE-POST] Meeting with leaders of the Lake Worth Artists and Cottage Entrepreneurs (ACE) on July 23rd, 2015

[I received an interesting observation and decided to re-post this blog entry from late July 2015. The re-zoning of a tiny parcel, a part of a City block, for the Gulf Stream hotel project is the big news of the day but there was another re-zoning story that created quite the fuss in July. This is, I think, a study in contrasts and how powerful an "impact" a zoning change can make. It comes down to whether that impact is, on balance, positive or negative for the community. What follows is a very long post and if you're short on time read the last four paragraphs that summarize my thoughts on re-zoning residential neighborhoods for "home occupations" in Lake Worth.]

I want to report on a very frank and cordial meeting that I had with Elise Crohn, Erica Skolte and Beth Shrantz. Michael Flack was also in attendance. They, and others, have put together a proposal to amend and update the City's regulations related to home occupations. I had a lot of questions that I put forward on this blog about their proposal. I also took time to carefully review what they were proposing and to look at other cities' ordinances that regulate home occupations. The one continual thread that runs through all of the ordinances that I have seen, including Lake Worth's current ordinance, is that any home occupation must be secondary, subordinate and incidental to the use of a residential property and that the residential viability of the neighborhood and the property be maintained.

I went into the meeting with a healthy amount of skepticism but open to what was being proposed and what they had to say. We met at Ms. Crohn's home. Her home (which she rents) is not the typical Lake Worth residential property. It was originally built as a doctor's office with a dwelling unit as a part of it. Its location is also unique in that it is bounded by Bryant Park on one side and has ample parking space for up to 6 cars on the property. At one time she held art classes twice a week there and had 6 to 8 people per class. That is until code enforcement found out about it a few months ago.

What she was doing was not allowed in the Low-Density Multi-Family Residential (MF-20) zoning district in which the property is situated. She planned to apply for a conditional use permit to become a vocational school (which is permitted as a conditional use in that district), got the approval of the property owner, was willing pay the $1,500 fee for that review by the City and meet ADA requirements. She was told that she could do that but that it would result in a negative recommendation from City staff to the Planning and Zoning Board. Thinking that would be insurmountable she elected not to go through that process.

That is unfortunate as I think there could have been a solution for her particular situation that had minimal impact on the surrounding area given the uniqueness of the layout, location and size of her property. I believe staff could have been more accommodating of this request. Who knows what the Planning and Zoning Board action would have been?

Not being able to teach her classes, Elise searched for answers to this dilemma. Through her own Facebook page and due to an article that appeared in a now-defunct tabloid led her to meet others in a similar situation and also sympathetic to her circumstance. There seem to be many residents in the City that are operating "under the radar" and without a business license since they don't meet the strict letter of the code. For example, the sorts of equipment you can use for your home occupation are very limited. According to the code as now written:
(N)o equipment shall be used on the building site except telephones, typewriters, personal computers and mailboxes.
The word 'typewriters' is one clue that this part of the code hasn't been examined in a while. Clearly, an apparatus used for printing t-shirts, musical instruments for teaching music lessons, or any number of pieces of equipment used in the creation of art is not permitted currently.

For reference, here are the City of Lake Worth's current regulations for home occupations.

It is my experience as an urban planner that the vast majority of local governments have a systematic way of creating and reviewing changes to their land development regulations. Through the daily course of business, the zoning officials become aware of certain items that either need to be brought up to date (to catch up with societal and economic changes) or address conflicts within the zoning code (land development regulations). When the local government does this regularly, in the course of maintaining the code, it is initiated by the City and there is no fee attached to it since it is part of the regular government process. If someone else wishes to change the text in the land development regulations there is a fee. In Lake Worth's case the city charges the applicant a $3,000 fee to review and analyze the request. If it also requires a text change to the Comprehensive Plan that is an additional $3,000.

In the case of Ms. Crohn it is my interpretation that a change to the Comprehensive Plan isn't needed but a change to the land development regulations are. In order to submit their requested changes for review would require the payment of this $3,000 fee for it to go through the proper review channels. That would be the review and analysis by staff, a staff recommendation to the Planning and Zoning or the Historic Preservation boards, and then sent to the City Commission for final action. It is my understanding that staff has not acted to take this issue up on its own, so it is up to members of this group to come up with this application fee.

Before talking about their specific proposal I reminded them that there are many forces at work that challenge the quality of life in our residential neighborhoods today. Two that immediately come to mind are the proliferation of sober homes and vacation rentals, both of which the city is powerless to control. A change in the rules which regulate home occupations could be perceived by many in the community as an additional threat to residential neighborhoods, especially if it opens the door too widely.

At the end of our conversation we acknowledged that this shouldn't be a political football (ideally), and it could be an opportunity to discuss solutions to legitimate obstacles, creating a possible innovative way to market the city, and how crucially important it is to protect residential neighborhoods and a homeowners investment at the same time.

The key to keeping that control seems to be by treating home occupations as two separate categories. This is how Portland, Oregon does it. I encourage you to review that ordinance. The difference between the two types (A and B) is that A is a business that only involves the owner of the property, using a computer, phone, modern office equipment etc., with minimal client visits. That is essentially what the current Lake Worth regulations allow. Then there is a Type B that would allow an employee (1) in Portland's case but Lake Worth doesn't allow. B would also allow a limited number of customers to the home per day (8) in addition to the one employee.

If you had that one employee you would have to provide a parking space on-site. That would be in addition to the two parking spaces that are required for a single family house (in Portland). So the property would have to be large enough to accommodate that extra required parking space to become this Type B home occupation. This parking requirement would immediately eliminate many properties in Lake Worth from becoming this type of home occupation. We also have a situation where on-street parking is at a premium in some areas of the City which raises the issue of where these customers would park. ACE's current proposal is for 10 customers per day which I thought was way too high. A typical single family home generates a total of 8 vehicle trips a day. That translates into 4 trips to and from the home.

The proposal by the ACE group is that up to three employees be allowed which I told them was too much. That's when I referred to Portland's example of just one employee for the Type B group. At that point you are way beyond having the business be subordinate to the single family residential useit is the principal use of the property. I suggested many changes to their ordinance during our meeting and this was the most important one. I offered constructive advice and believe it was well taken.

In conclusion, I believe that Lake Worth is not prepared to review this sort of change to our zoning code at this time and ill-equipped to regulate the aftermath given all that is placed upon code enforcement now. A fully functioning and well-staffed code department has to be in place prior to the roll-out of ACE's home occupation effort. Another burden is not what is needed on top of all the other contemporary headwinds faced by our neighborhoods. My main concern is and remains the sweeping applicability of this change.

I could see certain areas identified where an overlay zoning district (something like the Arts Overlay District, but designed to a specific neighborhood or two) that would allow for an expanded and relaxed standard for home occupations, perhaps targeting particularly blighted areas. Or, one suggestion by ACE, a pilot "roll out" where only a limited number of these licenses are issued and there is more of an opportunity for close monitoring of the results (both positive and negative) with the City's limited resources in mind.

I suggest further study at a very deliberate pace to allow a thorough vetting by everyone, including those that would be adversely impacted by these proposals. I believe the group plans a series of presentations before neighborhood groups. This is a good thing! Remember though, many of our Lake Worth homeowners bought a property in a residential neighborhood for that specific reason, it is residential, and they expect the City's zoning code to protect their investment. This is nothing to rush into.

As for Ms. Crohn, I support her initial attempt to request permission (at her expense) for a vocational school at her residence.