County officials say the process for handling code violations errs on the side of leniency to give the violator every opportunity to correct the problems. That long process has led to frustration for the neighbors of such businesses.

Share story

For 27 years, Jacalyn and Larry Holsted enjoyed the tranquillity of their home in rural King County, outside of Fall City, up a private dirt drive and surrounded by trees.

Last summer, their next-door neighbor brought in a bulldozer and started cutting trees and clearing his backyard. When dump truck after dump truck dropped loads of crushed rock, Larry Holsted said to himself: “This isn’t going to be grass.”

Instead the neighbor, Matt Rengo, cleared and graded a parking lot for half a dozen heavy trucks and parking for about 10 employees at his tree-removal and landscaping business, Eastside Tree Works.

County officials acknowledge the operation violates rules that allow some home occupations in rural areas, but not large-scale ones that haven’t been approved.

Eastside Tree Works isn’t the only business in unincorporated King County operating outside of the regulations. Because county code-enforcement officers mostly respond to complaints — and because of a lengthy appeals process — illegal enterprises operate in rural and agricultural areas, sometimes for years.

“It’s frustrating,” Jacalyn Holsted said of the tree-removal business. “He’s in a residential neighborhood, there’s noise, traffic, and strangers coming and going. The county has issued repeated ‘stop work orders,’ but there’s no follow-through.”

The county issued its first “stop work order” for clearing and grading without a permit in March 2013. Since then, it has issued five other violation notices, including for converting a house into an office and running a landscaping business as a home occupation.

Still, Rengo — who says he is the victim of harassment and exaggerated allegations from his neighbors — hasn’t reduced the size of his business or paid any county fines.On Aug. 14, two days after the county fined him a third time, he submitted an application for a permit that could allow him to continue to operate as a home industry.

County officials say the process for handling code violations errs on the side of leniency to give the violator every opportunity to correct the problems.

“Other jurisdictions will bring down the hammer sooner,” said John Starbard, director of the Department of Permitting and Environmental Review. He said the timelines for compliance are long, appeals can be appealed, violators can ask for more time and they can defer the payment of penalties.

“If someone wants to game the system, they can,” Starbard said.

Starbard, who took over the department in 2010, said he and his staff have transformed the department’s permitting process. But code enforcement, which he described as a “spaghetti” of rules and procedures, is just now getting scrutinized.

Five code-enforcement officers cover about 1,000 square miles, he said. Each has about 260 open cases. That’s meant some businesses fly under the radar.

In unincorporated King County just outside of Woodinville this spring and summer, for example, the county cited eight wine-tasting rooms for operating on land zoned rural or agricultural. One had been in business for two years.

But the Metropolitan King County Council has also determined that rural areas should accommodate a wider variety of uses than urban areas, Starbard said.

“The codes are written to reflect that what people do in more rural areas is different from what they’d do in Laurelhurst,” he said.

King County has cited the owner of a tree removal business for multiple violations including operations that far exceed what’s allowable for a home occupation. Source: King County Department of Permitting and Environmental Review (Stephanie Redding / The Seattle Times)
King County has cited the owner of a tree removal business for multiple violations including operations that far exceed what’s allowable for a home occupation. Source: King County Department of Permitting and Environmental Review (Stephanie Redding / The Seattle Times)

King County allows home businesses in rural areas if they are limited in scale and “subordinate to the primary use of the site as a residence,” according to the department’s rules. They must have fewer than three employees working on site and no more than three who report to the site but work primarily elsewhere. A permit is required when a structure is built or the use of the property changes.

The county also allows home industries for businesses with more employees and more equipment, but those require a conditional-use permit, which is subject to public notice, public appeals and conditions set by the county, Starbard said.

Eastside Tree Works has been cited several times by the Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) for safety violations. One worker was killed in December 2010 when struck by a falling tree.

Rengo was fined $6,200 for three serious violations, said Elaine Fisher, L&I spokeswoman. He was cited again and fined $2,500 in March 2013 when a worker fell out of a tree and was seriously injured. Rengo said in an interview that the death occurred when a climber made an improper cut and a ground worker walked into the drop zone. Since then, Rengo said, the company has instituted rigorous safety procedures.

He disputed the characterization of the 2013 injury as “serious,” although L&I said he paid the fine and did not appeal the citation.

Rengo also said he has felt unfairly targeted by the county.

Within a 5-mile radius, he said, 20 landscaping and tree-removal businesses are being run in the same rural or agricultural zones.

Jim Chan, the county’s assistant permitting director, said the department is aware of only two other businesses in the area which have open code-violation cases, Rich Landscaping and Bear Creek Landscaping, both along the Redmond-Fall City Road.

Rich Landscaping, a much larger business than Eastside Tree Works, has been cited for exceeding the allowable size of a home occupation, using agricultural buildings for retail sales and processing materials, all without permits, said Chan.

He said Bear Creek has no permit for a retail nursery, which must be approved before a landscaping business is allowed. It’s also been cited for grading in a wetland.

Rich Landscaping has been in business for 35 years, Bear Creek for 20. Owners of both questioned why the county is telling them they lack the necessary permits.

Susie Richards, who owns Rich with her husband, called the county’s red tape and code enforcement “horrible.” She said that over the years the landscaping business has had to hire a wetland biologist and a hydrologist and pays a monthly retainer to a land-use attorney to respond to letters from the county.

“We’ve worked hard with King County over the years,” she said.

Mike Clifford, owner of Bear Creek, said the county has told him in the past that he is in compliance, but he also understands that if someone complains, the county has to investigate.

“Now I have to deal with it,” he said. “I almost consider it harassment.”

For the Holsteds and other neighbors of Eastside Tree Works, the county’s enforcement hasn’t been aggressive enough. Almost two years after first citing Rengo for clearing and grading without a permit, it fined him $1,500. He was fined another $6,100 in June and $8,370 this month. He hasn’t paid any of the fines, according to the permitting department.

The county’s Chan said the department does sometimes shut down a business, but only in cases of life safety or irreparable environmental harm. Those cited for operating in the wrong location can be ordered to close or move, but only after the owners exhaust their legal appeals.

To Jacalyn Holsted, it seems as if anyone could open any type of business in the unincorporated areas of the county, even next to single-family homes like their own, and continue to operate with few consequences.

“This could happen to anyone,” she said.