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Get the latest coverage of the 2021 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

A Power Grab Or Freedom? Florida Home Businesses Bill Divides State And Local Officials

If the bill becomes law, Floridians would be able to open businesses inside their homes, including the kinds that bring customers and shoppers. It would also strip some powers from local governments.

Every time the Florida Legislature goes into session, Miami-Dade County Commissioner Joe Martinez says he has to mentally prepare himself. It’s something he says half-jokingly, but also half-seriously.

“I crawl into a bathtub in fetal position and wait for the Legislature to end and come out and see the aftermath of what’s the collateral damage that they have done,” he told WLRN.

His frustration with the Legislature is because every year, he said, Tallahassee chips away at the rights of local government.

That frustration recently bubbled over into two resolutions Martinez sponsored in the Miami-Dade commission, opposing bills that have been introduced in the Florida Senate.

Both resolutions passed unanimously at the commission level, and both bills in Tallahassee are sponsored by Republican State Sen. Keith Perry, of Gainesville.

“It’s the same guy!” said Martinez.

One of the bills would stop local governments from issuing their own licenses for things like painting a home or contracting work like installing a new floor or new cabinets into a home. And the second one particularly drew the ire of Martinez, who said it could fundamentally change the character of residential neighborhoods.

The bill would prevent county and municipal governments from regulating many aspects of businesses that operate inside of a home. Local governments would have to treat home-based businesses the same as they treat traditional businesses in regular commercial or industrial districts.

If the bill becomes law, Floridians would be able to open businesses inside their homes, including the kinds that bring customers and shoppers. A coffee shop could open next door, or perhaps a firework shop.

In his nightmare scenario, Commissioner Martinez imagines a beauty parlor opening up next door to his home, bringing increased traffic and noise onto his suburban street.

“Now they have infringed on my property rights,” he said, citing the hypothetical. “Because when I bought that house I bought it thinking it was in a residential neighborhood where my kids can grow up and bike, whatever it might be. So that goes totally against what [the Legislature] should be standing up and fighting for — defending people’s rights.”

Sen. Perry said his bill is intended to give small businesses the kind of flexibility that local governments often deny them.

“We’re not taking away from local governments and giving it to Tallahassee. We are giving it back to the individual person," he told WLRN.

'Beneficial Use' For Business

Under the bill, the home business would still have to be secondary to the use of the property as a place of residence. However, up to two people who do not live in a home would be able to work there, allowing people to commute to residential neighborhoods for a regular work day. Enforcement of those rules would still be the job of local governments, not the state.

A previous version of Perry’s bill specified that home businesses could not create a “substantial increase” of traffic, noise or trash in a residential neighborhood.

The latest version leaves out those restrictions.

Perry said that he is “not an anarchist,” and that rules and regulations have their place in society. But, he argued, those rules should not stifle the creation of businesses.

“You can ask yourself this question — in the last 30 to 40 years, do we have less regulation today or more regulation today? And is that good or bad?” said Perry. “We know without a doubt that the regulatory and legal environment has kept hundreds of thousands of people from pursuing their dreams to have their own business and from doing what they want to do.”

The bill specifies that a residential home is often the “most valuable asset” owned by an entrepreneur, and that business owners should be able to put those residential properties to a “beneficial use” for business, while still keeping the primary usage of the property residential.

Giving Floridians more leeway to open businesses in their homes can spark a small business boom, said Perry, especially since commercial rent tends to be more expensive than residential rent. According to this thinking, the lower the bar to entry the easier the path to more entrepreneurship, more economic independence, and an overall more innovative economy.

“College kids, they’re not saying I want to graduate so I can have an inbox and an outbox and collect a check. They want to go change the world,” said Perry. “You can’t go change the world when you’re a cog in a giant machine.”

The bill has already passed two committees in the Florida Senate and needs to pass the Rules Committee before going to the Senate floor for a full vote.

Both Republicans and Democrats have voted for the bill in committee.

'Who's Reaching For The Power Here?'

One of the most contentious points in Senator Perry’s proposal is that it could trample on this concept of home rule. “Home rule” means local communities — like a county, city, town or village government — make decisions about things that primarily impact the people who live there, and not the harder-to-access government in the state or national capital.

“I defend broad home rule, because home rule galvanized my community to create something out of nothing,” said Anna Hochkammer, a council member in the village of Pinecrest.

Pinecrest incorporated in 1996 and the village's ability to control its own zoning regulations was one of the driving forces behind that decision — and at a basic level, controlling local zoning is one of the most fundamental things local governments do.

Hochkammer called the bill “a broad, sweeping, un-detailed power grab” and said politicians in faraway places should stay out of these local issues and let local officials do the job they were elected to do.

“My constituents did not elect Senator Perry. My constituents likely have no idea who he is,” she said. “So if Senator Perry wants to answer the phone at 2 o’clock in the morning from my constituents when there’s a code compliance matter, then he needs to start sharing his cell phone number widely.”

The state of Florida has hundreds of municipalities, ranging from metropolitan coastal cities to tiny agricultural villages to mostly industrial areas.

“All of these places exist within the state of Florida. All of them have different needs. All of them have different tax bases,” said Hochkammer. “All of them have different images of who they are and who they want to be.”

As such, local officials like Hochkammer and Miami-Dade Commissioner Martinez have arrived at an elusive kind of bipartisan consensus against this kind of legislation. Hochkammer is a Democrat and Martinez is Republican.

“Tallahassee is a Republican-led legislature, and one of the Republican principles — and I’m a Republican — states that the government closest to the people is the best one,” said Martinez. “That the government closest to the people knows best. I know they have fought federal interference all the time, yet they’re like ‘Do what I say not what I do.’”

Senator Perry shrugs off that strain of the argument and points to the merits of the bill itself.

“That kind of blanket ‘home rule’ stuff or blanket ‘Tallahassee’ stuff is just a very elementary or pedestrian debate and argument. It doesn’t really delve into anything at all,” he said. “Look — you want to opine on this and debate on this great, let’s do it. But let’s do it on the bill, not on this blanket thing of ‘we want to have the power.’”

For Hochkammer, the notion that local politicians are the ones who are power hungry is almost disrespectful. She points to a long list of laws that have passed in the last few years limiting the authority of local governments as proof — from banning bans on plastic bags to banning bans of sunscreens that are harmful to the environment, to making it harder to regulate vacation rentals.

“I have no power. I am a term-limited volunteer municipal elected official. My salary is zero. I do this because I care about my community and my community elected me because they thought that I spoke for them,” she said. “They know me. They don't know him.”

“So who's reaching for power here?” she asked.

This story is part of our series looking at how state leaders have wielded influence over Florida’s local elected officials – and voters. Stay tuned for more in the coming weeks as the legislative session continues in Tallahassee.

Copyright 2021 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

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