Seattle City Council Passes Legislation to Promote Bed and Breakfasts

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · August 8, 2006

Seattle.—In what was truly a win/win moment for the City of Seattle and its small business community, the Seattle City Council yesterday passed a bill that will make it easier to open and operate a bed and breakfast (B&B) in the city, while ensuring the unique character of Seattle’s single-family residential neighborhoods. Sponsored by Councilmember Richard Conlin, the bill will contribute to Seattle’s economic vitality and create more economic opportunity in a city with considerably fewer B&Bs relative to Northwest neighbors such as Vancouver and Victoria, B.C.

Council Bill 115671, which passed by a vote of 9 to 0, was enacted to fix problems in the current law governing B&Bs in single-family, residential areas—problems that were at issue in a March 2005 lawsuit filed by Blayne and Julie McAferty, owners of the Greenlake Guesthouse. According to Michael Bindas, a staff attorney with the Institute for Justice Washington Chapter (IJ-WA), the public interest law firm representing the McAfertys, “This bill is a win for everyone involved: it allows small business owners like the McAfertys to earn an honest living; it respects the great neighborhoods that make up our city; and it ensures that visitors will have affordable and comfortable options when they plan their stay in Seattle.”

If signed into law, the bill would amend the current B&B law in a number of respects favorable to entrepreneurs like the McAfertys. For example, it would allow would-be B&B owners in single-family, residential neighborhoods to make exterior alterations to their homes to facilitate the B&B use, so long as the alterations are consistent with the development standards governing the underlying neighborhood. The bill would also change from three to five the number of guest rooms that a B&B in a single-family, residential neighborhood may have.

At the same time, the bill includes a number of provisions aimed at preserving the character of single-family, residential neighborhoods. For example, it includes provisions designed to mitigate potential impacts from B&Bs, such as traffic, noise, and light. Moreover, it would prohibit B&Bs from opening in structures that are less than five years old.

The McAfertys filed the lawsuit that prompted the new legislation after the City ordered them to shut down or face fines of $75 per day. The City claimed that, by adding two tasteful window dormers to their home before opening it as the Greenlake Guesthouse, the McAfertys violated a provision in the current B&B law that prohibits “exterior structural alterations . . . needed or made to accommodate the bed and breakfast use.” Ironically, the city issued a remodeling permit for the dormers. Even more ironically, if the McAfertys were not planning to operate as a B&B, the dormers would have been perfectly legal—it was only because they added the dormers to accommodate the B&B that they became illegal.

Represented by IJ-WA, the McAfertys filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the “exterior structural alterations” ban, claiming it impermissibly interfered with their ability to pursue their chosen livelihood. Shortly thereafter, the City and the McAfertys agreed to stay the case to afford the City an opportunity to craft legislation that would fix the current law.

The result of that effort is Council Bill 115671. It is the product of months of work by the City, particularly by Councilmember Conlin, the bill’s sponsor, and Councilmembers Peter Steinbrueck and Tom Rasmussen. All three are members of the City Council’s Urban Development and Planning Committee, which considered multiple drafts of the bill, received substantial public comment, held a well-attended public hearing, and discussed the issue at length at Committee meetings in June and July.

“The City Council, particularly Councilmember Conlin, along with Councilmembers Steinbrueck and Rasmussen, worked long and hard on this bill,” explained Blayne McAferty. “We appreciate their effort and think they have produced a good piece of legislation. It is proof that the City and small business owners can work together to create a vibrant economy and economic opportunity.”

William Maurer, IJ-WA’s executive director, emphasized that the bill demonstrates how economic development does not have to come at the expense of neighborhoods: “You can have great small businesses and great neighborhoods. The two go hand in hand. The McAfertys have always been an important and positive part of their neighborhood while providing first-rate service to their guests.”

The bill now goes to Mayor Greg Nickels, who may sign it into law, allow it to go into law without his signature, or veto it.