We elect government officials to represent our interests and look after us and our community. In effect, we hire people to manage the spending and saving of our money, among other things. But there are days that make one wonder….
Wilmington’s city council will have two issues before them at the next meeting that just make me scratch my head. To me, they seem like busy work assigned in school to keep everyone occupied on the day of a substitute teacher.
The first issue regards the now infamous window sign ordinance that—contrary to the editorial in the StarNews a few weeks ago—is not just aimed at downtown businesses, but is supposed to be applied across the entire city. The fact that this has even been up for discussion has perplexed me from the beginning. Really? We don’t have a shortfall in the city budget that would be more important to discuss? Aren’t we still trying to annex Monkey Junction? How’s the sewer system looking?
As if that wasn’t baffling enough, as we reported a couple of weeks ago, a city council member, who has yet to be identified as of press, has requested an amendment to the bed-and-breakfast permitting process. At present, new B&B permits can only be issued one per physical square block and one per facing blocks. To illustrate: The 1500 block of Market Street, which houses the Port City Guest House, cannot have a B&B permit issued for any building across the street, on that block, or for any building on the physical block that encompasses 15th, 16th, or the 1500 block of Princess Street behind it. Here, B&B permits are tied to the property in perpetuity. So, if one sells a piece of property with a permit, the new owner receives the permit with the purchase of the house. The amendment would require B&B permit holders to reapply for permits every 18 months. At that time, they have to show 180 nights of occupancy.
I did check with the city, and this proposal very clearly is about a length of time, not a number of bookings. So, if three rooms are booked for one weekend, it would not count as six bookings but two, because two nights were booked.
Take a deep breath and think about that for a second. From a business standpoint, it makes absolutely no sense. It is punitive of success. I want to ask a question to the city: If you don’t want B&Bs to have an additional four occupants, does that mean you don’t want the room occupancy and sales taxes collected from those occupants as well?
What exactly is involved in the permitting process for a bed and breakfast? I have long cherished a plan to open a B&B one day, so I set off to try and secure a permit. My first stop: city planning offices. I have had multiple reasons in my adult life to visit this department. Without fail, everyone I have talked with has been wonderfully kind and helpful; it’s stunning given how much work they process. When I dropped by to inquire about getting a permit and began filling out the application, the nice gentleman pointed out they had few applications requested. One of its contingencies is a floor plan. It took me several days of trying to make this more difficult than necessary (one of my common personality flaws). Then, it occurred to me the county tax site has square-footage maps. So, I simply took a tape measure and drew in the interior walls in a fifth of the time I was expecting.
With papers in my hot, little hands, which included the B&B application and the sign application, I went running back to the planning office. Those who know me have dealt with my total over-the-top excitement, which overwhelm even the strongest of people. When all the adrenaline courses through my veins, there is just not a whole lot of calming me. Bouncing about after five cups of coffee, I descended upon the office with my bundle of papers in hand. No one batted an eye; I’m telling you, these people are pros. About 20 minutes later, I went down stairs to write checks for each permit, and came back with the receipt and scheduled a site visit and inspection later that week. Wondering if everything needed to be decorated and tidy, as if ready to open the B&B tomorrow, I was told the purpose of the visit was to ensure the house did reflect the floor plan I drew and to see that the B&B experience would be reflected; decorations could come later. The helpful people suggested I talk with the fire department about their requirements, too. So, I called headquarters and left my name and phone number. Apparently, it had been a while since anyone at the fire department had B&B permit request, too. “We’ll call you back,” I was told. They did, and I talked with about four different people.
On the same day as the site visit from the planning office, the fire department came out and walked through the house with me. Because the B&B is obviously a long way from opening, this was more by way of identifying issues they will be concerned with when they come for an official inspection. We talked about planned evacuation routes, fire extinguishers, smoke detectors and prevention. Actually, it was really informative and will be helpful during the next phase: repair work, painting, decorating and, of course, dealing with all the expense and madness of starting a new business.
I reflected upon the application process. Two prevalent themes of the experience: Everyone was exceptionally helpful; I encountered no obstructions or rudeness. The universal attitude of everyone at the planning and fire departments was friendly and oriented toward success.
Two: I was told repeatedly that this just doesn’t happen too often. Therefore, people often had to “get back” to me after double checking on appropriate protocol. Apparently, this is the first B&B permit issued in six years by the city, which leads one to think there is just not a huge stampede of people knocking down city streets in a rush to open quaint guest houses. If the city council’s complaint is that inactive permits are preventing people from opening B&Bs, why not amend the code to allow more B&Bs per block? Why is the first response a punitive one? Surely, there are solutions to allow for more high-end, small businesses to open in our historic district to meet the frequently stated need for more guest rooms downtown. I think what fundamentally baffles me about the whole process is that, as Steven Skavroneck of the Camellia Cottage put it, “This is a solution in search of a problem.”