Houston examines home business ordinance

wcrenshaw@macon.comFebruary 9, 2014 

WARNER ROBINS -- When Shawn Smith applied for a home business license in Houston County, it never occurred to him that anyone would have a problem with it.

All he would be doing, he said, is acting as a middle man for after-market Jeep products. He would take orders online, then have the products shipped directly from the manufacturer to the customer.

“Neighbors would probably never even know I had a business in my home,” he said.

Such requests are routinely accepted, especially when no neighbors oppose it. A sign was posted in front of his house alerting neighbors to his request, and a few stopped to ask him questions, but he said none had a problem with it.

When he took the request to county commissioners Tuesday, no one could tell him how his business would negatively impact his neighborhood. Yet he walked away without a license for the business he had worked for months to start.

An aircraft mechanic at Robins Air Force Base, Smith said he saw the chance for a part-time job to help put two children through college.

The request led to a prolonged debate and a rare split vote rejecting it. Now the county is looking at whether a provision of its home occupation ordinance may be outdated.

The code section that governs special exceptions for home businesses states that no items can be sold from a home unless those items are made or modified at the home. Smith’s request was found to be in violation of that.

Tim Andrews, administrator of planning and zoning, said that section was written before the explosion of the Internet. He said it was intended to keep people from operating retail businesses in neighborhoods.

“There was no good way to monitor that the home would not become a retail center,” he said.

Smith could have gotten his request approved if he resubmitted his application with a changed business plan. He could have the product shipped to his house, remove the item from the box, place a sticker with his business name on it, then repackage and ship to the customer. That would constitute a modification, but it would also add to his costs and potentially increase delivery truck traffic in his neighborhood.

No one seemed to think that would actually be better.

“If this was next door me, I would a whole lot rather him be doing this than having a product coming to his house and being manufactured out in his backyard,” Commissioner Tom McMichael said. “I think sometimes we can make a change and have the prerogative to overrule some of these regulations.”

The debate about the issue centered on whether the board should strictly follow the ordinance or exercise some discretion. McMichael and Commissioner Larry Thomson voted for discretion, while Commissioners Gail Robinson and Jay Walker voted to follow the ordinance.

That left it to Commission Chairman Tommy Stalnaker to break the tie, and he voted to deny the license. In a little more than three years in office, it was only the second time Stalnaker cast a tie-breaking vote. The first time, he said, was also over a special exception.

Stalnaker clearly didn’t like voting against it but said after the meeting he didn’t see much of a choice.

“If you have an ordinance and you just ignore the ordinance, then why have an ordinance at all?” he asked.

However, he did agree the provision in question might be obsolete and need a revision. He appointed Andrews, Thomson and Walker to a committee to look at it and make a recommendation of whether changes should be made. He also wants to look at how other counties address the same issue. He said he hopes within a month or two the board will have a recommendation to consider.

Smith, who lives on Clover Hill Drive near Mossy Creek Middle School, for years has modified off-road vehicles as a hobby. He became known enough in the field, he said, that an after-market manufacturer approached him to sell their products online, and that’s how the business idea started.

Smith said he is glad the county is looking at changing the ordinance, but he saw no reason why the board couldn’t have approved his request.

“It amazes me they did not give me my business license,” he said. “They should be able to make an exception from the ordinance. That’s what we elect them for.”

To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.

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