South Capitol debates parties

When T.K. Bentler learned he had exceeded Olympia's legal limit of social gatherings at his second house this year, he said he had to cut off things most people do in their homes without thinking.

He couldn't host a benefit auction for his children's school, host a friend's wedding reception or hold a Christmas party, Bentler told the Olympia Planning Commission on Monday.

Bentler is a lobbyist. And the house in question is known as the Castle, a 1923 brick mansion that sits as close to the Capitol as any home in Olympia, except for the Governor's Mansion.

It has become the center of a passionate debate in the South Capitol neighborhood, where year-round residents are bristling at the loud parties lobbyist-owned homes bring during the winter legislative session, and the empty buildings they become the rest of the year.

The neighborhood is zoned as residential.

The Castle, located at 1601 Sylvester St., was at one point advertised as a convention space. Neighbors picketed one of the parities there this year, and the city cited Bentler twice.

"When I bought the Castle, I said yes to a lot of folks. I'm a lobbyist. Sometimes it's hard to say no," he said Monday.

But a proposed ordinance backed by the full-time residents of the neighborhood would prohibit lobbyists like Bentler doing anything that resulted in trade - including having dinner with other lobbyists, he said.

"If it means I can't have a Christmas party with my friends in my home, something's wrong," Bentler said.

The new rules would limit home occupation permits - required to conduct regular business in a residential zone - to full-time residents of a neighborhood. Full-time residents would sign an affidavit saying they occupy the house in question more than six months a year.

"It's not lobbyists we object to. It's commercial use of residential property," said Russell Carstensen.

He and several other full-time residents of the neighborhood said when homes come up for sale in their historic neighborhood, they are increasingly being turned into clandestine offices, used three or four months a year and left empty the rest of the time.

Martha Liska said she has lived in the area for 33 years, but only in the past five years have lobbyists begun parking there in the morning and walking down the middle of the street to the Capitol instead of using the sidewalks.

It's like they think of her neighborhood as a parking lot, she said.

"There is a unique difference between someone who lives in the home 12 months of the year and someone who lives there less than six months a year," Liska added.

Lobbyist Steve Gano of Lakewood bought a house in the neighborhood this summer. He told the commission he plans to have his children come and stay with him and his wife while the Legislature is in session. He said he will have legislators over for dinner, and he'll get paid for it, but it's his second house, with his furniture in it.

"It is the neighborhood south of the Capitol. It's not like - no disrespect intended here - that someone would move here and say, 'Jeez, what's that big building there?' " he said.

But, as Carstensen pointed out, the 99-year-old house that Gano purchased is more than 20 years older than the Legislative Building.

Full-time resident Martin Meyer said he had never met a lobbyist neighbor until Monday's meeting.

"They're not bringing their families here. They're not going to church here. They're not doing the shopping here," he said. "You're going to have to decide, the commission, whether you want to keep this as a residential neighborhood."

What's next

The Planning Commission is accepting written comments on home occupation permits and full-time residency in the South Capitol neighborhood until the end of the day Friday. It will discuss the proposed ordinance without public input at its next meeting, Nov. 6. The commission may make recommendations to the Olympia City Council to change the code.