Clark County, WA - Home businesses chafe under rules

Sunday, August 31, 2003

By ERIN MIDDLEWOOD, Columbian staff writer

Robert Seth decided to launch an accounting practice from his home near Yacolt about 15 years ago so he could be with his children.

He prepares taxes in a spare bedroom while his wife home-schools their children, now teenagers. If he gets tired of sitting in front of a computer, he heads outside to do a chore in the yard and comes back to his office refreshed.

"It's so nice," Seth said. "I would not give it up. If I went and got an office downtown, I would make three times as much next year. But I'd hate it. "

The hitch is, Seth and a growing number of entrepreneurs are running afoul of a little-known county law that requires those working from home to obtain a permit.

Seth visits his clients instead of receiving them at his home office. He works alone. His business does not affect his neighbors. He has his state license. It never would have occurred to him that he must apply for a county permit.

"I don't know how the county could say that I couldn't do this business here," he said. "There's no difference between this place if it was a business or it wasn't."

At-home entrepreneurs argue that the county should make it easier to keep people employed in a tough economy and curb the number of workers commuting to Oregon. County officials are considering loosening the rules for home businesses, but some entrepreneurs still fear entangling regulations.

"We're too much of a bedroom community to chase all these people who are trying to survive over the bridge," said Keith Ansell, who restores classic British automobiles from his Brush Prairie home.

Almost 6 percent of all Clark County households are also workplaces, according to 2000 U.S. Census figures. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of people working from home in Clark County doubled to reach 7,141.

The number may be much higher.

"There's really no good way to get a handle on it," said Gordy Euler, a Clark County planner.

Clark County's current rules require anyone working from home in unincorporated areas to obtain permits, and prohibits any equipment storage outside.

But few knew of the rules until excavation contractors confronted the county several years ago after receiving fines for storing heavy equipment at their rural homes. The county has issued only 123 home-business permits since 1999.

Contractors who operate noisy diesel rigs are easier to spot than the accountant or medical transcriptionist who works from a back bedroom. Many have labored that way for years, as oblivious to the county rules as the county is to their existence.

"I'm on a street where there are several who have home businesses and nobody knows it," said John Polos, who has run an electronics business from his home near Battle Ground for 22 years.

Many of these people haven't spoken up about the proposed ordinance, perhaps for fear of catching the county's attention.

The county currently requires those who do little more than work on a computer from home to obtain a $79 permit. For those who work from a detached garage or other outbuilding or who have employees, the base permit fee is $2,605.

"When we started looking at the current ordinance, we said, 'This doesn't work for anybody,'" Euler said. "That's when we took on the notion that we could try to make home occupations in general more flexible."

County commissioners convened a task force that recommended permitting a certain number of rigs and employees based on parcel size.

Even though building and excavation contractors with home-based businesses that are illegal now would be permitted, many are angry.

They turned out for an Aug. 21 planning commission meeting to argue that the rules are too complicated and restrictive.

"They're not happy unless they're totally not regulated," said Susan Gilbert, who lives near La Center and served on the task force.

Under proposed rules, those who work alone from their urban homes would be able to do so without the permit that's now required.

In rural areas, a home business could have two employees, store one business vehicle and have six car visits a day -- all without having to obtain a county permit.

Permits would be required for larger operations. Depending on parcel size, homeowners would be able to run businesses from outbuildings ranging from 1,250 to 3,000 square feet; employ two to five people; use 500 to 3,000 square feet of outside storage; and store no more than five each of trailers, vehicles and pieces of equipment heavier than 15,000 pounds.

The Building Industry Association of Southwest Washington, Clark County Citizens United, Clark County Farm Forestry Association and La Center-North County Chamber of Commerce formed a coalition that's pushing for an alternative that would not limit vehicles and employees but would instead focus on screening, noise control and other ways to lessen the impact on neighbors.

The county hasn't enforced existing rules about heavy equipment storage and home businesses except in response to complaints, which may be why the proposed rules, though more lenient, have met with opposition. But much of the outrage about the rules stems from permit fees, which the task force said should be lowered.

"We were very concerned about the fee structure," Gilbert said. "It's very prohibitive."

Contractors running larger operations from home complained to the planning commission that if they had to pay permit fees that would start at $2,605, with additional fees tacked on for other required reviews, they would go out of businesses.

That debate has overshadowed the benefit the proposed rules would have for smaller businesses, like Seth's accounting practice, which may make up a majority of the home workplaces.

Seth said many of his clients run businesses from home. He sees the growing number of at-home entrepreneurs as a return to the cottage industries that existed before the Industrial Revolution, a lifestyle that balances work and family, and reduces the number of commuters.

"Our favorite joke," Seth said, "is about the long commute from the kitchen to the office."


The Clark County Planning Commission will consider rules for operating businesses from home at a work session Thursday at 5 p.m. and a hearing at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 18 on the sixth floor of the Public Service Center, 1300 Franklin Street.


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