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Popular bill to expand neighborhood businesses in WA appears dead

A little brick building sits between several houses on a small neighborhood street. The sky is grey. A white truck is parked a short ways away.
Scott Greenstone
A small art gallery inside what was once the DiCasoli corner store in a Seattle neighborhood.

More cafes, markets, or small businesses in your neighborhood – does that sound like something you could get behind? State legislators in the Washington state House of Representatives thought so.

In fact, earlier this month, not a single Republican or Democrat in the House voted against a bill that would've required cities to allow neighborhood cafes, markets, and small businesses in residential areas.

But as of Friday, it appears to be dead, like many much more contentious bills, in the state senate.

House Bill 2252 was sponsored by Representative Mark Klicker, a Republican from Walla Walla. Klicker said it's a right property owners should have, and something many neighborhoods in the state could benefit from.

"(It could) maybe bring back that sense of community that we need — that we've needed for years, especially since the COVID days," Klicker said.

The Association of Washington Cities, which advocates on behalf of almost 300 cities in the state, called it "the darling of the session," though they had a number of concerns. Then, in the Senate, the bill hit a snag over the question of whether cities should be required to change their zoning laws to allow neighborhood cafes.

"Cities can already do this," said Carl Schroeder, a lobbyist for the Association of Washington Cities. "Many of them do."

Zoning policy traditionally has been decided by cities or local jurisdictions, but last year that changed when the legislature effectively ended single-family zoning for many parts of the state, in an effort to improve the housing shortage. Removing regulations on housing is an intersection where free-market Republicans and "yes in my backyard" Democrats often agree.

But such bills are often criticized by local government leaders for applying a one-size-fits-all approach across the state — even to small cities with few staff to handle the permitting and administration that comes with bigger projects.

Private property rights are important, Schroeder said, but "the flip side of that is the rights of the rest of the community who also own property in the area."

So the bill was changed in the Senate, taking out language that cities "must" allow neighborhood cafes in residential areas, and changing the language to an encouragement.

"The bill was gutted with a single word," Klicker said. Klicker added that now it functionally changes nothing. He blamed the Senate Democratic Caucus. A spokesperson for the Senate Democrats disputed his characterization in an email.

"Even though it didn’t pass this year, that in no way changes a small café’s ability to set up shop in a residential area, or a city’s choice to authorize one," Aaron Wasser, the Senate Democrats' communications director, said in an email.

"If you listen to testimony, the cities did have extensive concerns about the broad nature of this mandate. This seems like one of those ideas that will come back next year and hopefully find a path forward so there can be even more walkable communities around the state."

Produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

Scott Greenstone reports on under-covered communities, and spotlights the powerful people making decisions that affect all of us throughout Western Washington. Email him with story ideas at