Business license proposal sparks debate


Bucking a nationwide trend towards working at home, the city has proposed requiring writers, artists and others who work at home to get business licenses.

With city officials in the dark about the number and variety of home-based businesses in Malibu, city staff, in conjunction with the Business Roundtable, is studying a licensing requirement for all businesses operating in Malibu, as a way of keeping track of commercial activity in residential areas.

Currently, the only licensed businesses in the city — restaurants, service stations and retailers who sell liquor — are licensed by the county.

City officials usually only learn of a home-based business if it is the kind that generates a high volume of commercial traffic and, consequently, neighbors complaining of a violation of zoning laws. At that stage, enforcing the zoning ordinance is more difficult. “By then,” said City Manager Harry Peacock, “the owner of the business can say, ‘I didn’t know I was violating the zoning laws. You’re taking away my livelihood. You’re starving my kids.’ “

If businesses were required to secure a license before setting up shop, then those planning to operate from their home would know if their business would run afoul of the zoning laws before they established its location.

A subcommittee of the Business Roundtable is studying what type of a license program it would recommend to the city. At the very least, the subcommittee plans to recommend that the city take over the licensing of those businesses the county currently regulates.

Mark Olson, chair of the subcommittee and past president of the Malibu Chamber of Commerce, said that if the city chooses to implement a business license fee for all businesses, he would recommend a nominal fee for most, and a different fee schedule for businesses that require more regulation, like contractors.

The city would adopt a business license program only if it could generate enough fees to cover the cost of administering the program. With recommended annual fees of $50 and exemptions for nonprofit organizations and businesses making less than $5,000 a year, the 1,300-or-so Malibu businesses may not be sufficient to make the program viable. But even with limited fees of $50, some members of the roundtable took issue with the notion of having to pay any money for a business license. “We’re talking about creating new fees that could snowball out of control,” said Kathryn Yarnell. “This is a whole new level of government, just to police business.”