No Room at the Inn For Big Government

April 1, 2005

April 2005

IJ clients Blayne and Julie McAferty stand in front of their home, which they’ve converted into a bed and breakfast. The City of Seattle is trying to shut them down.

No Room at the Inn For Big Government

By William Maurer

When Blayne McAferty was laid off from his job in the aerospace industry, he did the entrepreneurial thing: he turned this bad fortune into a chance to do something new. Together with his wife, Julie, he purchased a turn-of-the-century home across the street from Seattle’s Green Lake Park, moved in with their two sons and their beagle, and restored the home to its former glory. They then opened up a bed and breakfast offering first-class accommodations, a welcoming atmosphere and delicious food. Soon the Greenlake Guest House filled with delighted guests. This was truly an American success story—faced with adversity, an entrepreneur turns bad news into a thriving business providing a needed and appreciated service.

To the City of Seattle, this kind of thing is just not acceptable.

The City has ordered the McAfertys to shut down their B&B because the McAfertys added one dormer and enlarged another (a dormer is a window that is set vertically on a sloping roof) on their home. While this addition would have been legal in a single-family home, these improvements—which fit perfectly with the character of the neighborhood—violated a provision of the city code that forbids “exterior structural alterations . . . to accommodate bed-and-breakfast use.” The reason for this restriction is presumably to preserve the character of residential neighborhoods by barring any alterations to a B&B’s structure—even though private homes are permitted to make the same changes.

The McAfertys would love to welcome guests into their home, if only the City of Seattle would let them.

Unlike its neighbors Vancouver and Victoria, B.C.—each of which has a thriving B&B industry—Seattle has few B&Bs. Until 2003, the City made it illegal to open a B&B except in commercial or multifamily zones—that is, places where no one would put a B&B. Beginning in 2003, Seattle permitted B&Bs in residential neighborhoods in order to boost tourism and home-based businesses. Unfortunately, Seattle’s actions were just for show because the new ordinance makes it practically impossible to open or operate a B&B. In addition to the restrictions on structural alterations, the ordinance makes it illegal to have any signs to help guests find the place. The City also makes it illegal to display the address of the B&B on anything but business cards. Websites, postcards, flyers or other advertising materials that tell potential customers where the B&B is located are prohibited.

Either a dormer destroys the character of a neighborhood or it does not; there is no rational explanation for restricting the McAfertys from making improvements that would be completely legal if they were made to a single-family home that is not used as a B&B. The Washington Constitution requires that restrictions on businesses occurring on private property be reasonable and actually promote the general health and welfare. Seattle’s ordinances fail this test. That is why, on March 1, 2005, the Institute for Justice Washington Chapter (IJ-WA) filed a lawsuit in state court challenging Seattle’s irrational restrictions on B&Bs. Our goal in this case is to vindicate the McAfertys’ fundamental right to earn an honest living on their property and their free speech rights to communicate with the public about their business.

Seattle’s ordinance manifests a disregard for the right of its citizens to earn a living free from unreasonable governmental restrictions. It would be tempting to say that entrepreneurs are an endangered species in Seattle, but no one would be able to treat an endangered species the way Seattle is treating the McAfertys.

By forcing the McAfertys to shut down their business because they made alterations to their home that would have been perfectly legal for anyone else to make, Seattle has strayed from the intent of the framers of our state constitution, who created a document that protects the rights of small entrepreneurs. By bringing this suit, IJ-WA will remind Seattle that it, too, must follow the plain language and spirit of the Washington Constitution.William Maurer is executive director of the Institute for Justice Washington Chapter.

Subscribe to get Liberty & Law magazine direct to your mailbox!

Sign up to receive IJ's bimonthly magazine, Liberty & Law, along with breaking news updates about the Institute for Justice's fight to protect the rights of all Americans.