Today, the Arizona Republic published an op-ed written by Christina Sandefur of the Goldwater Institute and Scot Mussi of the Arizona Free Enterprise Club about the recent decision by Phoenix bureaucrats to shut down a Christmas light display. It is a classic example of how the regulatory Grinch can steal Christmas, and why additional reforms are needed to protect home-based businesses and property rights in Arizona.
Phoenix Canceled Christmas Because a Guy Handed out Cocoa
By Christina Sandefur and Scot Mussi

Every year, Lee Sepanek’s Christmas display brings joy to Phoenicians, who visit to enjoy the glistening decorations and sip the hot chocolate he serves them.

But not this year. Thanks to Phoenix bureaucrats, Lee has been forced to cancel the show.

The trouble started this summer, when the city warned him he was in violation of its Mobile Food Vending Ordinance, even though he isn’t operating any kind of “mobile” facility. He doesn’t even charge for the cocoa — he just asks for donations. But the city says its rules are broad enough to prohibit even giving away cocoa — made from hot water and powdered mix — from your driveway.

Officials told Lee he “would need to find a licensed commissary kitchen as a ‘base’ to store, clean and prep any open food,” and that he would have to get a “special event/seasonal permit,” requiring fees and “inspections onsite.” They also complained that Lee was selling Christmas ornaments, arguing that violates Phoenix’s rules against having a “home occupation.”

In their two-page letter, the Goldwater Institute outlined multiple legal issues and factual inaccuracies in the approved resolution and ballot language, and asked the county to remove the proposition from the ballot to avoid a costly lawsuit if it is approved.

After local news exposed Lee’s story, the city indicated it might budge, but it’s too late. Even if city officials changed their minds, Lee couldn’t get the lights up in time for Christmas.

This is part of a larger problem.

Phoenix’s Grinch-like attitude is part of a larger problem: Across Arizona, local governments are working to shut down home-based businesses, violating private property rights and harming economic opportunity. The Legislature eased restrictions on home-based businesses slightly last year, but it’s time the state provided stronger protections for the right to work from one’s home.

Home-based businesses help make this country run. Apple and Disney were both started in garages. Lawyers, psychologists, furniture repairmen and data entry technicians all work from their homes. And it’s hard to see why it’s OK to do one’s own income taxes on the kitchen table but not for an accountant to do someone else’s in her home office.

Cities that shut down home-based businesses often complain about traffic or neighborhood parking, but there are already rules on the books addressing such concerns. Banning home-based businesses out of fear that some might lead to disruptions is like banning all backyard barbecues because some parties get loud.

And while it’s reasonable to regulate food preparation to protect against food-borne illnesses, the law already protects Arizonans’ right to sell or give away food they cook in their own kitchens.

We need broader protections.

The Goldwater Institute and the Free Enterprise Club are urging state lawmakers to broaden protections for home-based businesses.

In Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” Ebenezer Scrooge questions the Ghost of Christmas Present about laws that forced Londoners to close their stores on holidays — which, Scrooge says, essentially deprived them of income. Why, Scrooge asks, should the Ghost “cramp these people’s opportunities of innocent enjoyment?”

Shocked, the Ghost says he did no such thing — that was done by people who act “in our name” but who don’t really get the Christmas spirit.

It’s sad to think Phoenix officials have a poorer understanding of the holidays than Scrooge.