Our Turn: Phoenix canceled Christmas because a guy handed out cocoa

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.”

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.

Read more of this azcentral op-ed by Christina Sandefur and Scot Mussi by clicking here.

Photo: Sean Logan/The Republic