The issue of the Greenlake Guesthouse is not whether the owners broke the law. Clearly, they did. The issue is whether the law makes sense...

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The issue of the Greenlake Guesthouse is not whether the owners broke the law. Clearly, they did. The issue is whether the law makes sense.

The aim of Seattle’s bed-and-breakfast law of 2003 was to open the door — very carefully — to B&Bs in single-family zones. The law requires a B&B in such a zone to be operated by the resident owner. It can have no more than three rental rooms. The owners can make “no exterior structural alterations to accommodate the bed-and-breakfast use.”

The new law meant to forbid alterations to make the home look like a hotel. The law has long allowed a homeowner to make exterior structural alterations — dormers, for example, which is what Julie and Blayne McAferty built on their house at 7630 E. Green Lake Drive N.

Last year, they went to the Department of Planning and Development. They asked: Are we really forbidden to add two dormers? The city employee was helpful. Not to worry, he said. Just apply as homeowners. You are not a B&B yet. Fix up your house and declare it a B&B later. So they did. The city issued them a permit and they made $130,000 of alterations. The work was tastefully done, so their house looks like an unmodified 1920s Craftsman.

Last August, they opened for business, with room rates of $119 to $199. Julie kept her day job as a nurse and Blayne minded the B&B. In November came the thunderbolt. Threatened by a lawsuit from a neighbor, the Department of Planning and Development had changed its mind about the two dormers. The Greenlake Guesthouse was to shut down (a decision deferred because of a lawsuit).

Shutting down B&Bs like the Greenlake Guesthouse is “not what we intended,” says Councilman Richard Conlin, who wrote the law. He suggests the ordinance may have to be repaired.

The McAfertys are trying to overthrow it. They are represented by the Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm that aims to expand the constitutional rights of small-business owners and entrepreneurs. Their lawyer, Jeanette Petersen, is not arguing that the McAfertys are innocent under the Seattle B&B ordinance, but that the ordinance unconstitutionally restricts their right to earn a living.

This is a principle with implications. It suggests that your neighbors shouldn’t be able to stop you from working at home unless your work harms them in some verifiable way — by making noise or odor, by taking away your parking space or by raising the risk of disease or crime.

That would change more than Seattle’s B&B law. The city’s general ordinance on working in a single-family-zoned house allows you only one outside employee, one delivery per weekday and none on weekends. You may post a sign no larger than 64 square inches, which is smaller than a sheet of copy paper, and it must have only your name on it. You may not put your address in any advertisement or directory, and if you put it on your business cards you must add, “By appointment only.”

Can the city of Seattle compel you to put that on your business card? Attorney Bruce Johnson of Davis Wright Tremaine, an authority on the right of commercial speech, says the ordinance “doesn’t sound like it passes muster under the First Amendment” and is vulnerable to a lawsuit.

And the McAfertys are making such a claim. Their issue is a sign, which the B&B ordinance forbids. Last year, Blayne McAferty applied for a 15-square-foot sign and was turned down. He says, “Why can a day care have a sign out and I can’t?”

You can see where this is going. One side will say, “See? You’re creating a commercial district. It should all be forbidden.” That way is easy but not reasonable. In truth, a B&B in a restored Craftsman is not the same as a Ramada Inn, just as a mother-in-law apartment is not the same as a condominium high-rise. A reasonable freedom to be self-employed is part of city life, and needs to be accommodated.

Seattle’s answer is to write narrow, restrictive laws but not enforce them unless someone complains. Your freedom thus depends not on the law, but on your neighbors — and not on the majority of them, either, but on the most intolerant one.

As a system, it is not particularly fair or conducive to making a living, but it is what we have until we think of something better.

Bruce Ramsey’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is