Playing the Media Card
By Greg Pearson
Joni Roberts is not only good at running her home day care business, she has demonstrated skills on how to manage the media. That’s what some people do – play the media card – when they run afoul of a law, ordinance and/or covenant.
We in the media encourage it because it often leads to good storytelling. In this case, Roberts is trying to rally public opinion.
Roberts owns a day care business that she runs from her Brandermill home, violating her homeowner-association covenants and a county zoning ordinance. But thanks to less-than-probing reporting by the daily paper and at least one TV station, she is winning the PR battle.
This example is in Brandermill. But it could be any planned community in Chesterfield or Henrico. Covenants typically restrict single-family homes to residential purposes. In a planned community, you accept the restrictions to get the benefits and amenities your community offers.
A change in state law has exposed Roberts’ covenant and zoning violations, which have been ongoing for the last 18 years. She had been able to fly beneath the radar until the Virginia Department of Social Services required her to “advise” the county that her day care business is authorized to care for up to 12 children at any one time.
Her day care operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Of the 32 home-based day cares in Chesterfield that are licensed by the state, only Roberts’ and one other operate 24/7.
When Roberts contacted the Chesterfield Planning Department, she was told she needed zoning approval to operate her day care. Like most suburban, single-family homes, hers is zoned for residential use only. Following its usual procedure, the county then notified the Brandermill Community Association of her zoning application.
That Roberts was still running her business came as a surprise to the homeowners association. Back in 2003, Roberts had applied to the association’s board for approval and was turned down. The homeowners association assumed she had discontinued the day care to comply with its ruling. Though she would have signed documents when she bought her home pledging to abide by those covenants, she ignored the Brandermill Community Association and continued to operate.
The applicable covenant reads: “All lots in said residential areas shall be used for residential purposes exclusively. The use of a portion of a dwelling on a lot as an office by the owner or tenant thereof shall be considered a residential use if such use does not create customer or client traffic to and from the lot.”
So home-based offices – a man and his computer, for example – are permissible, but when clients or customers start knocking on those Brandermill doors, the covenants are being broken. In the 3,800 homes in Brandermill, the county says there are about 360 home-based businesses, but it isn’t known how many are generating foot or vehicular traffic. Undoubtedly there are some. That, Roberts told reporters, means she is being targeted. The Brandermill Community Association, however, would likely argue it pursues violators when it knows of them.
We in the news business root for the underdog, particularly when cute kids are involved. No doubt about who the bad guys are in this story.
As of press deadline, those who have covered this story haven’t reported on what might happen if other businesses should want to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week from Brandermill homes. The precedence could affect property values.
Roberts’ business opens the door for a rental property being converted into a boarding home, say, for up to 12 people coming and going at all hours. In the past three years, the Chesterfield Zoning Department has received 32 complaints about overcrowding in single-family homes.
Suppose another neighbor is an auto mechanic who wants to begin his own auto repair shop, starting out small from his garage. That could mean parking the vehicles of his customers awaiting service (and perhaps a tow truck) in his driveway, overflowing, if necessary, onto the street. Yes, he and his employees will be clanging around with the garage door up during warm weather.
Or someone starts a package-delivery service out of her home. The enterprising small-business owner says she’ll have less vehicular traffic than a 24/7 day care because all six of her vans will be on the road making deliveries during the day. Of course, since her home is her office, those logo-bearing vans will be parked in her driveway and on the street at night and on weekends.
The above Brandermill covenant is “straightforward,” according to attorney Sam Kaufman, a partner with Owen & Owens (which handles our company’s collections). Brandermill could order a court injunction to cease operation of the day care regardless of whether there is county zoning approval.
Homeowners buy homes with the expectation that their neighborhoods are residential, not a business opportunity. Planned communities with covenants in Henrico and Chesterfield don’t object when a business operates from home using a phone, fax, email and a website. The problems begin when customers and clients start showing up at their front doors. Even in many areas zoned for commercial businesses, those counties can impose restrictions against operating 24/7.
Just a half-mile away from the Roberts’ residence there is commercial space available in a neighborhood center that is more appropriate for her business.
For Brandermill, it’s not just one home day care that’s the issue. It’s whether the community wants to set a precedent, opening the door to other home-based businesses that generate customers and clients, particularly those that operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The issue for the media is understanding the story so they can report both sides.
Greg Pearson has been a resident of Brandermill for 36 years.