After interviewing Mary White of BnBFinder.com, I got a copy of her book Running A Bed & Breakfast for Dummies and see that she’s covered just about every topic that innkeepers and aspiring innkeepers would need to know.
One that really stood out for me was a section entitled ‘Watching out for unfriendly zoning laws’. When I saw that, I had a flashback to what Nancy and I went through when we found a nice home in a residential neighborhood. It had sat empty for three years, was dragging property values down, but was large enough to accommodate a bed and breakfast. It came with an extra lot so parking wouldn’t be an issue and the driveway entered and exited onto a prime corridor so the addition of a few cars on the weekend would be minimal at most.
What we never counted on was the collective intolerance of the neighborhood.
For further reading, visit The New Realities of Buying (& Selling) An Inn
With many homes (especially large, formerly expensive ones) facing foreclosure, you may be tempted to see it as a potential B&B. Before you go down that path, consider what happened to us.
Hitting The Fan
The home had residential R1A Zoning. To be permitted to become a B&B, we’d have to receive a variance from the city council. To do that, we’d have to prove we’d have room to provide parking (two spaces for us, one space each for each room). Done. We’d have to prove we could provide a separate bath for each room, that we would live on site, that traffic would exit onto a prime corridor, and that we would meet all safety codes regarding fire alarms, smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, and meals that didn’t include deep frying.
It was the city’s obligation to send a notice to anyone living within 200 yards of our home that we had applied for a variance. In the week after the city’s letter was mailed, no one called or visited us to express their concerns. We had lived on the street for ten years and we knew we were a shoo-in.
For further reading, visit Q&A with Jay Karen, Part 1: What Can PAII Do For You?
An hour before we were to appear before the city’s Planning & Zoning board to assure them we had it all taken care of, we noticed a couple down the street pulling their child in a red wagon. Also in the wagon was a stack of petitions. When we arrived at P&Z, nearly 60 of our neighbors were there. Here are some of the highlights they shared with the board over the next two hours:
- • Our guests would walk on city sidewalks.
- • There would be laughter coming from the B&B.
- • Our guests would bring coolers of beers and their rowdy behavior would keep them awake at night.
- • The sight of three cars in the parking area would disturb a neighbor (whose hobby of repairing cars kept at least a half-dozen in his yard at all times).
- • Opening an inn here would lead to a residential street filled with strip malls and gas stations.
- • Our inn would cater to pedophiles who would kidnap babies in the neighborhood.
- • Guests leaving the inn would race through the intersection, run over and kill kids, and “the blood will be on the hands” of the board and the innkeepers (us).
Thank God for common sense and laws, because the board was nearly unanimous in their recommendation that we be allowed to proceed. The mob wasn’t done, however. They hired a lawyer and appealed it to City Council so we had to hire a lawyer and appear before Council which, to its credit, read the law and the established zoning rules and we were granted the variance that allowed us to proceed.
Despite threats to appeal the ruling to Florida’s Fifth Circuit Court, that never happened and on November 17, 2001 we opened the Coconut Cottage Inn.
For further reading, visit Q&A with Jay Karen, Part 2: Tips For Aspiring Innkeepers
What To Know
With that as a caveat, White has some sensible advice about understanding unfriendly zoning restrictions. Before you invest in what appears to be the perfect home in the perfect neighborhood, DO YOUR HOMEWORK! Visit city hall, talk to people in the planning and zoning, the city building department, the city attorney, and anyone else you think can assure you that you’ll be permitted to do what you want to do because, notes White, restrictions may
- • Prohibit B&Bs entirely
- • Limit the number of rooms and guests you can have
- • Dictate the type of kitchen you can operate
- • Regulate what you can serve for breakfast
- • Limit the size and location of your inn’s sign
For further reading, visit Bed & Breakfast Blog Central
And the fun doesn’t stop there. Even after city council approved the variance, the fire department insisted that we install a hideous $5,000 stairway on the exterior of the inn and held the threat over our heads – even after we researched the codes and proved to them that we didn’t. That was followed by their insisting we had to install a $10,000 ramp to comply with ADA requirements – even after we researched the law and proved to them that we didn’t.
Converting a home into an inn can be an uphill battle. Know the laws, fight when you’re right, and make sure you’re going to win before you even consider putting down a deposit on your dream home. As Mary White concludes,
“Going into an area thinking you can get a conditional use permit is risky and rarely pays off. Make sure you can live with all applicable zoning laws and that the restrictions they pose fit into your business plan.”
Epilogue: Ten years later our inn has brought thousands of visitors to our town, added many times that amount to the economy, improved the aesthetics and image of the neighborhood -- and all but two neighbors who protested the inn have left town.