The Merriam City Council unanimously voted March 26 to remand recent revisions to the city’s home occupation regulations to the Planning Commission for further review after citing privacy concerns among residents affected by the terms.
“Honestly, it’s not anyone’s business what I do in my home,” Councilman Robert Weems said to a round of applause from attendees.
“Why does a computer programmer need a permit?” Merriam resident Sam Matier asked council members. “We are trying to put out a fire that isn’t even burning.”
Community Development Director Bryan Dyer said the revisions came after the Planning Commission decided to update the regulations that had been in use since 1970. According to a city council agenda packet, the updates would make the regulations “simpler, clearer, and easier to understand.”
Among the revisions for both home occupations and home offices — referred to as Type I and Type II home occupations under the new regulations — are that both are for accessory use, or the use is subordinate to the primary use of the structure. In addition, city staff would review home occupations instead of the Planning Commission, cutting down on the time it takes for the application process, Dyer said.
The main distinction between Type I and Type II home occupations is whether there are employees and customers on site, Dyer said.
Type I occupations could include hair stylists, tutors or music instructors, where customers and employees would be common.
Type II occupations don’t require employees or customers and include professions like writing, accounting and computer programming.
Both currently require a conditional permit and would instead require a home occupational permit under the revisions. The application for a home occupational permit requires a self-certification process at City Hall in which the applicant would initial each requirement. Many of the requirements would be enforced by an honesty policy by residents, Dyer said.
In addition, Type I and Type II home occupations currently have to notify residents within 200 feet of the property of their business. Under the new regulations, Type I occupations would still be required to notify neighbors, but the process could be done via First Class Mail with no return receipt requested. Type II occupations would not be required to notify neighbors.
The changes affect only new home businesses. Current home businesses with city permits can continue operating under the old regulations.
Many City Council members and residents took issue with the current and proposed requirement that Type II occupations apply for a permit, citing that such occupations pose no disturbance or nuisance to neighbors by performing the work in private homes.
“Instead of making it easier to get a permit for a Type II business, don’t require permits for Type II businesses,” Matier said.
Merriam resident Dennis Miles added, “It’s my business what I do in my home.”
“The cost to liberty is something I would not ignore,” Merriam resident and Chairperson of the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board Billy Crook said of the Type II regulations. “I believe it is unfair and, quite frankly, a little patronizing to ask home workers to initial every bullet point on a self-certification form because they want to be productive in their own homes.”
Dyer said the benefits of Type II businesses applying for a permit include ensuring the business owner has a conversation with the city so they understand the regulations and the how to conduct a business in a residential neighborhood.
“We are allowing those uses to operate and we are recognizing that we have knowledge that those uses are taking place,” so if we have questions or concerns we can respond appropriately that we know of those uses, Dyer said.
In Merriam, there are currently 40 licensed home occupations, Dyer said. The city gets approximately 6 to 7 complaints per year regarding Type I occupations and one for Type II, he added.
Concerns among council members stretched beyond the privacy issues. Councilman David Neal argued that many of the regulations written in the 1970s no longer apply to today’s landscape.
“That was before personal computers even existed,” Neal said. “I think one of the goals of this ordinance rewrite needs to be to bring it up to date with modern situations that we find in our neighborhoods. Clearly, we are in a digital economy now.”
Others echoed Neal’s concerns.
“If we are going to fix this, let’s fix it right,” Councilman Bob Pape said of any potential revisions.
Council members urged the Planning Commission to exclude permit requirements for Type II occupations when they review it.
The Planning Commission will review the council’s direction at its April 4 meeting and present its findings to council members April 9.