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Friday, December 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Overcast
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Backyard workshop is said to violate Madison zoning laws
City to artist: Knock it off
on (1) Comment
Hefty in his shop: 'The city never stopped me until I got it
done.'
Hefty in his shop: 'The city never stopped me until I got it done.'
Credit:Bill Lueders

Dan Hefty didn't think he had anything to hide. After all, he says, "the city granted me permits to build what I described as 'a high-tech workshop'" - a garage-like structure behind his home on Madison's east side. And he built it to code.

And so when city zoning inspectors showed up on Oct. 9 and asked to look around, Hefty let them in. Big mistake.

One of the inspectors, Heidi Conde, subsequently sent an email stating he had "an illegal home occupation" that he must "cease" within 30 days of receiving an official notice. That notice arrived Monday.

Madison zoning code allows home-based businesses, with certain restrictions. For instance, only family members may be employed, unless an exception is granted. The business must be "clearly incidental and secondary" to the house's use as a dwelling. Oh, and the business use must occur within the home, not in an accessory building.

"We would call somebody working on cars in their driveway [for hire] an illegal occupation," explains Matt Tucker, head of city zoning. Same for someone who keeps mowers and edgers for a lawn-care business in a backyard shed. Or someone who uses a residential garage to fix up old furniture sold at antique malls.

Moreover, says Tucker, "The ordinance has no waiver or alternative [to enforcement] for accessory buildings." The penalties for noncompliance: $177 for the first violation, $303 for the second in a year, and $366 for the third in a year, plus court costs.

Hefty, a professional artist, built the structure this summer. It includes a laser that he and a partner originally bought to cut clever fish decoys that wiggle in the wind. (They actually had this process patented.)

He's aghast that the city is telling him this is illegal. "I wouldn't have built this building and added to the property-tax base if I knew I couldn't do this here," he says. "The city never stopped me until I got it done."

Here, Hefty would be up against the age-old caveat that ignorance of the law is no excuse. But he does have other arguments to make.

Most significantly, Hefty says he's not "cut any fish" in his new workshop. And while he has used the laser to make etchings and print images on tiles, none of these artworks have sold.

"They're asking me to stop doing something I don't think I'm doing," says Hefty, who has informed Conde of his intention to comply.

Tucker agrees an activity must be a business to run afoul of the law. It's generally accepted, he says, for "hobbyists and weekend project warriors" to use their driveways, yards and outbuildings.

In other words, a person could cut chainsaw bears or build heavy furniture in his yard and garage day after day so long as he burned or gave away the final products. But if he used a shed to paint Easter eggs sold at craft fairs, that would be illegal.

Tucker says enforcement actions under this ordinance are fairly common and usually clear-cut - for instance, there may be lots of heavy equipment and employees who come and go. But the city doesn't seek out violators, and isn't aware of most home-based businesses, whether or not they're in compliance.

"That's the way it's supposed to be," says Tucker. "We're a complaint-driven agency."

In Hefty's case, a neighbor complained to the health department, which couldn't find a problem and called in zoning. The neighbor believes the laser killed his tomato plants, says Hefty, who points out the more likely culprit: a large black walnut tree looming in another neighbor's yard.

Making the connections

Even Chris Juzwik has to chuckle a bit about his new job title: community builder. "It does sound like I have a tool belt on and construct houses."

After nearly 12 years as features editor of the Wisconsin State Journal, Juzwik recently accepted a new role. He's working for the paper's owner, Capital Newspapers, to build up its community of website users.

"Ostensibly my goal is to connect people with similar interests via Madison.com and keep them coming back to the site," says Juzwik. He'll serve as a kind of "party host" for site visitors who may be interested in particular content, analysis, advertising or contests.

"It's a whole new world for me," says Juzwik, who was eager to try something new. He's being replaced as features editor by Katie Dean, formerly with The Capital Times. In the ongoing game of musical chairs at Cap News, Dean and others (including Samara Kalk Derby) recently moved to the State Journal side. [Correction: While Katie Dean is now in charge of 77 Square and the features section of the Wisconsin State Journal, she remains a Cap Times employee.]

Call it community rebuilding.

What's in a name?

The Madison Parks Division has a new name - sort of. "For marketing/logo purposes," says spokeswoman Laura Whitmore, "we are referring to ourselves as Madison Parks."

Officially, though, it's still the Madison Parks Division. The phraseology signifies that parks is not a stand-alone city department, but a subset of Public Works.

It's a distinction Mayor Dave Cieslewicz would do well to recall. His blog post last week on possible reductions in ice rink maintenance twice mentioned the city's nonexistent "Parks Department" - even after the error was pointed out to his office, or department, or whatchamacallit.

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