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City should make it easier to open a bed-and-breakfast
Special to The Times
Nearly three years ago, to increase tourism and boost Seattle's hospitality industry, the city passed an ordinance allowing bed-and-breakfasts in single-family neighborhoods. Shortly thereafter, we opened the Greenlake Guest House, the first B&B under the new ordinance. You can imagine our shock when the city ordered us to shut down a few months later.
It looks as if the city is now ready to make good on its desire to promote B&Bs — to some extent. Today, the City Council's Urban Development and Planning Committee will consider amendments to the B&B ordinance that may allow us to stay in business but make it much harder to open a B&B in Seattle.
We were ordered to shut down for violating a part of the current law that prohibits "exterior structural alterations ... to accommodate the bed-and-breakfast use."
But before we opened (in fact, before we even bought the house), we sought assurance from the city that our plan to add two window dormers would not violate this provision. The city gave us that assurance, explaining that the ordinance simply prohibits the addition of a parking structure or similar exterior structure that would detract from the home's residential character.
We relied on the city's good word, bought the house and, with a city-issued remodeling permit, turned it into the Greenlake Guest House. It's also our home, where we raise our two boys.
Just a few months later, however, prompted by a neighbor's complaint, the city ordered us to shut down. The neighbor claimed we'd violated the very provision the city told us wasn't a problem. The city reversed its earlier position and issued a cease-and-desist letter.
To protect our livelihood, we filed a lawsuit, still pending, challenging the B&B ordinance. Now, more than a year later, the city has proposed amendments to fix the ordinance.
In most respects, the proposed amendments are welcome. For instance, they would get rid of the ban on "exterior structural alterations" and allow alterations "consistent with the development standards" of the neighborhood.
The amendments would also increase the number of guest rooms allowed from three to five. That's great news for the B&B industry, but also for the city, which is such a tourist destination, and for B&B patrons, who deserve access to impartial reviews before planning their stays. Some industry guides that rate B&Bs won't even review a B&B with fewer than five rooms.
Despite these positive changes, the proposed amendments have two problems. First, they would restrict exterior advertising of a B&B to a 64-square-inch sign. That's smaller than a sheet of notebook paper, so guests would have a hard time even knowing whether they'd arrived at the right house.
More problematically, the amendments would subject B&Bs to a permit requirement costing would-be B&B owners thousands of dollars in application fees and costs. With no guarantee of success, that would create a significant barrier to entry in an industry the city seeks to promote.
There is no need for a permit requirement. There is none under the current ordinance and there has been no proliferation of unsafe or disruptive B&Bs. In fact, B&Bs are already heavily regulated to minimize any disruption to neighbors that might occur.
We want to thank the city for its willingness to revisit its B&B ordinance and applaud it for loosening the restrictions on B&Bs.
But in order to fully achieve its goal of encouraging B&Bs and ensuring Seattle's visitors have a comfortable and affordable place to stay, the city should scrap the sign restriction and unnecessary permit requirement.
Blayne and Julie McAferty own the Greenlake Guest House in Seattle. They are represented by the Washington Chapter of the Institute for Justice, www.ij.org
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company