Emerald Park owners have rejected a proposed rezoning that would have allowed a small engine repair shop at 105 Emerald Dr.
Storm Lake City Council refused to pass a zoning by-law amendment that would allow “maintenance of non-commercial lawn and garden equipment as a home occupancy.” Travis Brown, the occupant of the Emerald Drive residence, wanted to start his own small engine repair shop in hopes of one day launching a commercial location.
Pro Tem Mayor Kevin McKinney applauded Brown for trying to start a store — a necessary service in Storm Lake — but said a commercial or industrial area would be a more appropriate location. Councilwoman Maria Ramos said the proposal would have allowed anyone to work on lawnmowers or snowblowers in any residential area, which she says is a bridge too far.
“I guess I’d like to applaud him for trying to help everyone. We need a small motor here in Storm Lake to work and take care of things or whatever, but personally I think the business sector would be better suited to something like this than a residential one,” McKinney told Brown. “But thank you for doing what you do.”
After the meeting, Brown said he saw the denial coming. Even though the city’s planning and zoning commission unanimously approved the zoning change earlier this month, 19 Emerald Park property owners have submitted a petition opposing Brown’s venture .
A letter from Emerald Park resident Rob Danielson asked for a no. He said when he moved from Alta to Storm Lake in 2009, he never thought there would be a business venture in his neighborhood.
“The patio on the southeast side of our house is within 25 feet of the garage that would house the proposed small engine repair shop,” Danielson wrote. “I think there are a lot of buildings in Storm Lake for a commercial enterprise that would be more appropriate than a residential building that would affect the neighborhood. North Emerald Drive is a quiet neighborhood on a dead end street and I wish it were that way.
Councilor Tyson Rice, who lives in Emerald Park, said he received a flood of comments from neighbors, some as recent as 45 minutes before Monday night’s council meeting. McKinney said the issue had generated the most complaints the council had encountered during its tenure.
“I got more phone calls and stuff, taken on the street about this than any other topic that came up,” he said.
Brown said he couldn’t afford any alternatives.
He works full time at Ace Hardware and has bills to pay. His plan was to fix lawn mowers, snow blowers, and garden tillers when he wasn’t working shifts at Ace.
“If I could just afford to buy a building and start (the business) somewhere else, I would have done it already,” he said in response to McKinney’s suggestion to look for a business location. “I always try to work full time. If I have 700 mowers to make, obviously I don’t have enough money to buy a building anywhere else. The intention in my view is to have enough customers to be able to afford it. Right now, I can’t afford it. I already pay a house payment. “
A home location — essentially a second income for a skilled mechanic — is how a small engine repair shop can most likely survive Storm Lake, explained Erik Mosbo, owner of Hondo Sales and Service in Sioux Rapids.
“The age of a one-man small engine shop as a full-time occupation is over,” Mosbo said. “Dealing with suppliers, the volume levels you have to buy, it takes a lot of volume to survive on the margins the parts suppliers give you.”
Mosbo pointed to a small engine repairer near Ruthven that is growing amid industry consolidation. The reason is that he works part-time on his acreage. A full-time contractor must hire two mechanics to handle the seasonal nature of the business. Mosbo, 65, plans to sell his business so that he and his wife can one day retire.
“It’s the season for grass growth. We are very busy now,” Mosbo said. “But in the winter, you only work with snowblowers. You need something else to fill the void. Otherwise, you are going to have a hard time meeting the payroll.
Brown said a number of unlicensed garages already service mowers, tillers and snowblowers in Storm Lake. Demand has swelled since Storm Lake’s only small engine repair shop closed in 2012.
He pointed to a loophole in the city’s zoning ordinance that allowed residences to serve small amenities. A repairman might buy faulty lawn mowers in bulk, repair them at a garage, and then resell the items.
“Is it always acceptable for someone to work alone? Can you still maintain your own lawn mower? Brown asked the city’s construction manager, Scott Olesen.
Olesen said the practice was allowed.
“But wouldn’t that produce the same amount of noise?” Or if I bought old equipment, repaired it, could I resell it? Is it (allowed)? Brown continued.
Olesen replied yes. The city’s residential zoning rules limit the number of outside employees who can work in a home-based business — only one per household — but that doesn’t limit the amount of equipment it can use.
Brown said he plans to collect his gear from customers so the Emerald Park area doesn’t receive the heavy traffic that would have accompanied a new store. And he promised to comply with the city’s existing noise ordinance. No one can mow their lawn or operate large equipment after 9 p.m.
Brown said he saw no difference between his business idea and someone who bought, repaired and sold small engines as a hobby.
“I guess I really don’t know what the difference would be if I could buy something from someone who has an old lawn mower, service it and fix it, and then sell it,” Brown said. “Instead of picking up someone’s lawnmower, bringing it to my house, fixing it for someone. The same money will move and I’m still doing the same job, it’s not called a business. That’s kind of the only question I have. Because it’s mine, it’s fine, (but) because it’s someone else’s, it’s not.
Councilwoman Maria Ramos said allowing Brown’s business to operate could open the door for others to start their own home engine repair shops.
“I think the concern more than anything else is changing the zoning and allowing that to move forward, not just with you, but with other businesses,” she said. “And that might create a problem with noise, not to say you will, but changing the zoning might cause a problem.”