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City council debates investigation into alleged zoning violation

by DERRICK PERKINS
Editor | December 14, 2021 7:00 AM

Libby city councilors last week directed staff to investigate a local business that allegedly has taken up shop in a residential neighborhood after failing to secure a lease for a commercial space.

Mayor Peggy Williams asked City Attorney Dean Chisholm to launch the investigation following a short discussion at the tail end of a regularly scheduled city council meeting Dec. 6. City Councilor Hugh Taylor spurred the review after asking what, if any, action the city had taken regarding S&D Mobile Services.

Williams told Taylor that she had planned to follow the same steps taken in previous situations when businesses were caught operating in violation of zoning rules, namely sending out a cease and desist letter. She had thus far lacked the time to pursue any actions, she told her colleagues on city council.

For his part, Chisholm said he wanted to confer with Libby Police Chief Scott Kessel. A proper investigation would unearth the facts of the case, he said.

While most city councilors expressed support in rectifying the zoning violation, one member urged leniency. City Councilor Brian Zimmerman noted that the mobile washing and detailing service’s owner had spoken before the body and explained his circumstances. He argued that his colleagues should avoid punishing a business that had operated in the city for several years before falling on hard times.

While City Councilor Kristin Smith likened the operation to a ceramics shop that drew scrutiny — and resident complaints — after opening in a residential neighborhood several years ago, Zimmerman contested the comparison.

“That was brand new, starting out versus [being] in the community and having trouble with finding any place available to them …,” Zimmerman said. “To me, I think we need to be listening to our constituents and doing something that way.”

He proposed bringing owner Scott Traphagen before Libby City Council for a future discussion on the situation. It would mean a second appearance before the body for Traphagen, who lobbied city councilors in November to change the municipality’s zoning code to allow for his business.

At the time, Traphagen said that while he could operate both at home and afield, cleaning cars on his property was quieter by far. The shop draws little traffic to his residential property as he partners mostly with local dealerships, Traphagen told city councilors.

A neighbor also spoke on Traphagen’s behalf during the Nov. 1 meeting, saying that the operation caused no noise that he noticed.

“It’s discrete,” Traphagen said. “I’m not disturbing any of my neighbors.”

He asked that city councilors amend municipal zoning in order for him to apply for and receive a special use permit to continue basing his operation in a residential area. He pledged to close up shop and move as soon as he found a more acceptable location.

Back in the present, Zimmerman argued for carving out a solution for Traphagen.

“It’s one of those things where if we have a good business that is maybe having a problem because there isn’t anything out there [to rent], do we need to look at something and have a variance, a conditional use permit, for 90 days or something like that until he can find something?” he asked.

Smith, who sits on both the planning board and zoning commission, which is working to overhaul the city’s land-use codes, took a hard line on the discrepancy.

“… The reason we have rules is so people can come in work with administrative staff,” she said. “They know the rules and the rules apply to everybody. There are certain circumstances where variances can be issued, but — by the rules — this is not one of them.”

Drawing back to other small businesses that had run afoul of local zoning, Taylor noted that the city had taken similar action against two other entrepreneurs.

“I think we should have Chisholm continue with his investigation and see what he comes up with,” Taylor said.

Asked again for his view, Chisholm said he saw two issues at hand. One was the zoning violation. The other was the question of amending land-use rules to allow for the business, he said.

“One is making a report to the police department so they can do an investigation just as we would with a weed issue or other business license issue,” he said. “The second, mostly unrelated part, is does the council want to make an exception or change the ordinance?”

“Those are the simple decisions that are up to the council to make,” Chisholm said.

Smith told her colleagues that the business already had received a verbal warning about its alleged conduct. That spurred Williams to call for a fuller investigation.

“If there has been a verbal warning, I think we’ll pursue moving forward with an investigation and see what that reveals,” Williams said.