Even though West Street resident Howard Daniel has finally been granted a permit to operate his massage therapy business from home, the ramifications of his request ripple on.
The council met Wednesday to discuss what changes they wanted to make with regard to home-based businesses.
The consensus seemed to be not much.
City staff presented a variety of options to the council Wednesday. Many on the council were leaning toward the first option, which would keep the process the way it is but tighten the standards that must be adhered to.
Currently, someone who wants to operate a home business must go before the Planning Commission and City Council, negotiate conditions on their business and then hopefully be granted approval.
Option one would add some conditions that would not be open to debate, such as prohibiting exterior signs, prohibiting group events, limiting operating hours, identifying maximum number of clients and setting a prescribed break between clients.
These conditions are often imposed by council or the commission, but this option would make them standard.
The city has 19 special use permits for home businesses still active in the city. That is out of 34 that have gone before the council since 1980. Of the 34 that went before council, only five were denied.
The council’s decision to reconsider home businesses came as a direct result of Daniel’s permit request in September.
When he came before the council, a large contingent of people protested the request, saying that residential areas and business areas should remain separate.
At that time, the council decided to refer the issue of home-based businesses to the city’s land use committee.
The committee has met numerous times since then but could not reach a decision on what they thought should be done.
This prompted the council to have a work session Wednesday to discuss the issue.
While many on the council seemed to lean toward keeping the process basically the same with more restrictions, some members wanted a more radical reinterpretation.
“I have some concerns that the present system does not work,” said council member Marc T. Aveni. “And I think that has been demonstrated pretty clearly this past month.”
In October, the council had voted 4 to 3 to deny Daniel a special use permit for his business.
After the council denied his permit, Daniel retained attorneys from Washington, D.C.-based law firm WilmerHale and threatened litigation against the city.
Daniel’s attorneys and the city held discussions from that time until February, when the council granted Daniel his permit.
This happened after Daniel’s lawyers discovered that council member Steven S. Smith’s law firm had helped Daniel with some work related to his initial permit application.
This was a conflict of interest that should have disqualified Smith from voting in October. He recused himself from the February vote.
Aveni and council member Andrew L. Harrover are both in favor of option two, which restricts home businesses to educational purposes. Tutors, music teachers and the like would be given special use permits under this option, but nobody else.
This option would also remove oversight from the council and make decisions an administrative affair, subject to staff discretion.
Aveni argued this would give the home business process more consistency and make the types of home businesses allowed in the city more restrictive.
City Attorney Robert W. Bendall said during the work session that restricting home businesses to educational purposes could cause confusion.
If someone, like a psychic, couldn’t get through the approval process, they might try to work the system and say, “Fine, I don’t want to practice the art of psychic reading, I want to teach psychic reading,” Bendall said.
Manassas resident Paul Thomas has attended almost every land use committee meeting on this subject.
He said Wednesday he didn’t really think the process needed to be changed. He just thought the council needed to be consistent in its decisions.
“If you are consistent, the applicant will be able to see what’s coming,” he said.
Consistency, he and others argue, would prevent people from spending money, going through the whole process, agreeing to a whole bunch of conditions and then having their application denied.
Doreen Sims, chair of the Manassas Business Council, said Wednesday that home businesses are valuable to the community.
“Home businesses are really an incubator,” she said.
She noted that many home businesses later go on to be independent, lucrative community businesses. But this might not happen if the business couldn’t save money and grow from the safety of home.
“When you think about these things, really do think about the impact of what will happen if you restrict innovation,” Sims told the council.
The issue is going to be sent back to the land use committee next Thursday so committee members can reach a recommendation for the council.