For Sessing, home-work proves risky business

Diane Sessing still answers her home phone with the same friendly greeting she has used for the past three years:

“Good morning, 4 Perfect Pets, how can I help you?”

The longtime Lake Elmo resident is continuing to operate her pet product business out of her home despite a cease-and-desist order served to her by Lake Elmo city staff last October and upheld by the City Council at its Nov. 16 meeting. Now, eight months later, the council has reinforced that action by approving staff recommendations to take further action against Diane and her husband Rod, a former Planning Commission member, at its July 5 meeting.

City Attorney Jerry Filla’s list of recommendations, which include the execution of the cease-and-desist order as well as of Building Official Jim McNamara’s instruction to remove an incomplete storage structure on the Sessing property, was based on allegations and complaints filed by the Sessings’ neighbors, Steve and Joan Ziertman. The situation has gained more attention and, perhaps, a more critical eye because Steve Ziertman happens to be Diane Sessing’s younger brother.

What’s more, the Sessings now find themselves in a legal battle with the city, having obtained representation and preparing to go to civil court with Filla over what Diane considers to be selective enforcement of the city’s controversial and admittedly outdated code on home occupations. The case has the potential of starting a whirlwind of investigations into an indeterminate number of other home businesses in Lake Elmo, which may include the Ziertmans themselves.

But for now, Diane is busy enough continuing to take orders (however defiantly) for various cat toys and her supply of Anti-Icky-Poo (a pet odor eliminator) from her home at 5699 Keats Ave.

“I’m holding strong. I have the Ramsey County Fair next week,” said Sessing, who only sells her products off site, often at large events like the Washington and Anoka county fairs as well. “I’m just trying to keep the work going.”

Relatively difficult

The ordeal, however, has been trying on Diane and her husband, who have considered moving from their home of over 15 years many times lately. In addition to the recent legal difficulties, Rod Sessing was essentially ousted from his eight-year tenure on the city’s Planning Commission when the City Council decided not to reappoint him in May, choosing instead new member Bob Van Zandt in early June.

According to Diane, her husband was contacted by a council member who explained that Rod had “too many issues” going on with the city right now. Mayor Dean Johnston justified the decision simply with, “We evaluated the candidates and felt we had a stronger candidate (in Van Zandt).”

But the Sessings’ difficulties first began in the mid-1990s, according to Diane, with what she readily characterizes as a family feud. Although the Ziertmans and several council members have said they resent the implication, Diane believes the conflict with her brother — with whom she says she used to have a positive relationship, serving as general contractor when he built his home and frequently dog-sitting for him — began when she divorced her first husband, Dale.

“(My ex-husband) was best friends with my brother,” said Sessing, who is three years older than Ziertman.

Sessing alleged that, since she remarried, her brother and his wife have kept watch on she and her husband’s 11.5-acre property, which abuts their own 10-acre plot with about 990 feet. She believes the Ziertmans envied her ability to build an addition onto their home to house the 16-ft. and 12-ft. storage trailers for Diane’s products, which she said had more to do with Rod’s talents as a carpenter (he works in construction) than financial boon.

“It’s been a toll,” said Sessing, who believes Community Improvement Commissioner Joan Ziertman also pushed for the recent changes in the city’s underground animal containment ordinance to specifically target her in addition to alleged binocular surveillance and traffic monitoring.

“If the city could do me any favors,” she continued. “I’d ask them to allow us to build a 20-foot wall between us.”

Joan confirms that she has kept track of traffic into her in-laws’ property in the past: “I’m a stay-at-home mom so I do see what’s going on over there.”

But Ziertman said she does not feel the familial relationship has anything to do with the conflict.

“You can’t not look at the (city) codes because two people are related,” said Ziertman, who noted that she was pleased with the outcome of the City Council’s last meeting. “If anything (the family feud label) has been used against us as an easy out for a reason not to enforce the code.”

The Sessings have frequently pointed to Steve Ziertman’s own pumpkin sales and snow-plowing businesses as violations of the “no stock and trade” clause in the city’s ordinance. But Joan dismisses the accusation because her husband’s work is seasonal and agricultural in nature.

“There are some very legitimate home occupations that don’t have an impact to other homes,” she said. “But their occupation looks like a commercial business.”

Tricky enterprise

That subjective assessment is what makes the home occupation issue so hazy for Lake Elmo officials, who voted to allow home businesses in rural-residential districts when the Sessing case was brought before them in November. But the council also maintained that Diane was operating an illegal business because she stored an “unreasonable” amount of her product on site.

The Sessings’ attorney, Jeanne Anderson quoted an estimate to the council on July 5 that approximately 30 percent of the homes in Washington County contained home businesses. In an effort to prove a possible double standard, Diane provided the council members with a list of 17 businesses in town that she believed might be in violation of the same code as her.

Though most of those businesses did not return phone calls, those that did offered explanations for why they were not in violation, ranging from agricultural zoning, to neither storing nor selling products on site, to not actually having a home business at all (see adjacent story). This last excuse was given by the occupants of 8027 50th St. who Sessing listed because of their “bobcat, trailers and tractor outside,” though none of the machinery is apparently used for a business.

Nevertheless, the example illustrates the difficulty inherent in judging a home occupation’s impact on neighbors or detriment to the community. Although Johnston could not speak directly about the Sessing case because of pending litigation, he emphasized that the danger of home occupation is the potential growth that could turn a residential use essentially into commercial.

“There is a need for home-based business and we need a reasonable definition,” Johnston said. “It is not reasonable to double the size of the home and use that extra 50 percent for warehousing.”

The mayor acknowledged that the issue is “not simple” and the Sessing case in particular has “been a long frustrating discussion.” The City Council had hoped to have the Planning Commission (with Rod Sessing abstaining) address the home occupation code months ago, but revising the city’s comprehensive plan has taken priority.

Council Member Liz Johnson, however, was the sole opposing vote at the July 5 meeting for enforcing the cease-and-desist order, preferring instead to allow 60 days for the Planning Commission to perhaps address the ordinance for the entire city.

“I don’t want it to be a witch hunt,” Johnson said. “Many people have been forced to start a home occupation. Many communities have dealt with this. Times have changed.”

Diane Sessing agrees, though she hopes the only change her pet product business will see is growth. She said she would like to reach a point where she could afford to move her business out of her home and into a commercial space.

“I hope (my business) keeps on going,” she said. “Because when you go to the (county) fairs, you’ll find that 75 to 90 percent of the businesses are working out of their homes.”

So for now, even though 4 Perfect Pets is in “the doghouse” with Lake Elmo, it seems the Sessings have refused to roll over and play dead.

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