Federal Way code has unintended consequence on beloved woodworker

Like many Mirror readers, I read the story of Dave Hamlin’s run-in with the city code and was struck by a sense of moderate injustice.

It just doesn’t seem right that the popular woodworker should have to shut down his business/hobby after living here for 40 years.

I should start by making two things clear: One, I’m not going to beat up or criticize Federal Way’s code compliance staff. I think they do a fantastic and highly necessary job. Two, I’ve never purchased any furniture from Dave Hamlin, though I’ve driven past his house for years and once or twice thought longingly about buying some patio furniture.

Hamlin, of course, is the retired Federal Way-er who has been making just about anything you can think of out of wood at his Palisades Retreat home — the first decade or so as a hobby, and the past 13 years as a home-based business.

Recently, he was notified by city code compliance officers that his home-based business violated several provisions of the city code. Hamlin says he can’t meet the code requirements and still operate his business. Without the income from his woodworking business — and he donates about $20,000 of his proceeds each year to local charities — Hamlin says he can’t make the mortgage on his house, and he and his wife will have to leave Federal Way.

If that’s how it turns out, it will be a sad outcome. Losing a local craftsman and a pair of longtime residents like Mr. and Mrs. Hamlin, who are actively engaged in supporting local charities, is not what the city code was designed to do.

Let me revisit point number one. This isn’t the code compliance officers’ fault, and it isn’t the big bad city government picking on individuals, both of which have been suggested in the letters section. The city’s laws regarding what happens in neighborhoods are a vital part of our attempts as a community to improve our quality of life. When your neighbor has had that Camaro on blocks on the lawn for the past year, it’s a good thing that there are laws against that — and code compliance officers to enforce the law.

We have rules about what can and can’t be done in our neighborhoods for very good reasons. If you doubt that, imagine that your neighbor is running a home-based auto painting business. Sure, you don’t mind the fragrance of the paint so much, but when the kids come inside covered in a mist of black auto primer, you might get a little peeved.

While the city codes governing neighborhoods are in place for good reasons, they are not perfect. This isn’t surprising. There are plenty of laws that are, for the most part, applied to the overwhelming good of the community, but run aground in specific cases. Sometimes the letter of the law diverges from the spirit of the community. The question in this case is what kind of wiggle room the city has to realign with the community interest in retaining residents like the Hamlins.

Another element of the story caught my attention. That was the assertion by Hamlin (and subsequent letter writers) that his operation was brought to the city’s attention because of the complaints of newer residents in the neighborhood. My inner old-timer bristles against this kind of thing, particularly when neighborhood newcomers object to something everyone else has been tolerating for years.

As a general rule, I don’t think neighbors should be turning each other in like a pack of prison stool pigeons. That’s not the kind of community I think Federal Way is. In the older neighborhoods, where people typically know their neighbors, people should be able to talk to each other about concerns like, say, excessive dog noise, or in this case, be able to tolerate a little patio furniture on the lawn.

Some of the best solutions to neighborhood issues are the ones that don’t involve government.

Of course, if after a talk or two with the neighbors and they don’t deal with their dogs, calling in the enforcement is the only recourse. The Hamlins’ case notwithstanding, it’s good to live in a city where that option exists.

Chris Carrel is a lifelong Federal Way resident and executive director of the Friends of the Hylebos, a nonprofit conservation organization working to preserve Hylebos Creek and the West Hylebos Wetlands. Contact: chinook@hylebos.org or (253) 874-2005.

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