A Mountain Green home dance studio is facing an uncertain future after the Morgan County Council denied their request Nov. 7 for a Category III home occupation permit. In a 5-1 vote, the council said they based their denial on planning commission findings, including lack of engineered driveway and parking drawings that details off-street parking and an appropriately sized drive aisle.
The recent denial has home and business owners Scott and Sara Trageser scratching their heads, because none of this was originally required when they consulted with the county before constructing and opening their studio over a year ago.
Offering classes in tap, ballet, modern, contemporary and musical theater, the Mountain Green Dance Company studio is located at an intersection of Willow Creek Road and Hidden Hills Drive in The Cottonwoods subdivision of Mountain Green. The studio features a dance floor constructed with the Alvas dance subfloor system as well as a Marley-type dance floor. The “floating” subfloor absorbs the shock of jumping while the Marley-type dance floor allows dancers to slide with a degree of controlled slip.
“I appreciate the work that has gone into the studio,” said Councilwoman Tina Cannon, the mother of a dancer.
Sara Trageser, owner and primary teacher, is a California native who started dancing at age 3. While she has studied tap and jazz, she took a special interest in ballet and was invited to join a ballet company at the age of 16, according to her bio at mtngreendance.com. She helped develop the ballet department of California Dance Co., a prominent competitive dance company in Northern California. She worked as a teacher, choreographer and performer before moving to New York City, where she was selected to perform with the USO World Troupe. As a military wife, she traveled the world, teaching dance in Italy.
The Trageser family “decided to build their dream home in Mountain Green, where Sara looks forward to putting down roots and creating the dance studio she has always dreamed of owning,” according to her website.
The couple began “working with the county” in January of 2016, when they applied for a Category III home occupation license before building their house and nine months before holding classes. That same month, the county planning director called the Tragesers to tell them they would not need a Category III, and that a Category I application would suffice. “We planned and built our house based on no more than eight students at a time,” Scott Trageser told the Morgan County Council Nov. 7.
In October of 2016, a month after classes officially started in their basement studio, the Tragesers got a letter from the county pointing to complaints from their home owner’s association board alleging that dance class traffic was blocking bus pick up and drop off. Scott said the complaints were easily proven false, as they were not even holding classes when school buses were in the area. At that time, the planning director told the Tragesers they were in compliance with the code.
Fast forward to June of 2017, when a newly-hired planning director sent the Tragesers a letter that they could only have eight students per day, not eight per class as the previous planning director had led them to believe. “So, we went back and applied for a Category III, which is what we originally applied for” in January of 2016, a year and a half earlier. They intend to have no more than eight students per class, and four classes per day, for a total of 32 students per day. “We were originally approve to operate that way,” Scott said.
But Evans said the code calls for less. At issue is if the code calls for 32 students per day, or 32 vehicle trips per day. The Tragesers said the code is “ambiguous” and can be interpreted as 32 students per day. Evans, on the other hand, said the code calls for 32 “vehicle trips per day.” If each student generates two vehicle trips, one at drop off and one at pick up, then the Tragesers would have to limit their business to only 16 students per day, not the 32 they originally planned for.
At their Oct. 12 meeting, the Morgan County Planning Commission made the determination that the home business does not meet Category III requirements.
“It should be noted there is a current zoning violation on the property for exceeding home occupation Category I,” Lance said, because of the number of students and vehicle trips allowed by county code per day. Lance said the business generates a significant amount of traffic adjacent to residential properties, is not compatible with the neighborhood, is inconsistent with the area’s residential nature, and disrupts the peace and tranquility of the neighborhood.
If the Tragesers have violated zoning, they have not received notice of it yet, or been given a chance to defend their compliance, Scott said.
A Category I home occupied business means “you don’t know it is there,” Lance said. “It is the guy that works in his basement and does taxes. Driving by, you would not know it was there.”
But the company’s recent Category III request, asking for eight students per class and four classes per day, creates traffic “that is too big an impact on the neighborhood,” Lance said.
“We need an engineering analysis,” Evans said, asking for four parking spaces and a safe turnaround, all off-street.
The Tragesers said it feels like the county is changing the rules as they go along, even though they have been working with county staff “from the very beginning.”
“For 22 months we have been working with this license,” and now, only this month, the county is adding new specific parking requirements, Scott said. “We have never been asked to show engineered plans to show parking,” he said.
As for not fitting in with the residential nature of the neighborhood, Scott pointed to at least 20 other home occupations operating in the subdivision, saying his “does fit.”
If the Tragesers are required to move their studio to another more commercial or industrial zone, they would have to purchase and or renovate a new space, making it necessary to raise student prices 600 percent. “The purpose of a home-based business is to provide a commodity with a low overhead, which allows us to not over-charge or over-price,” Scott said.
The council voted 5-1 to deny the Trageser’s application for a Category III home occupation permit, based on the planning commission’s recommendation and lack of engineered driveway and parking analysis.
Councilman John Barber was the only one to vote against denial. Councilman Robert Kilmer was not in attendance.
“The question is not do we like (the business), but if it fits code,” Cannon said. “Land use decisions are by far the hardest decisions we have to make (as a council). We try to follow the code as fairly as we possibly can. We are setting precedence and I want to be very careful.”