The town of Minocqua's plan commission approved an administrative use permit application Tuesday for the sale of portable storage buildings from a lot on the town's south side.
The application was from James Carey, a distributor for North Star Portable Buildings in Athens, and it presented some interesting insight into some of where the plan commission will need to look as far as the ever changing world of business.
"I am North Star's largest dealer," Carey said. "I have different lot locations all over the state. I wanted to be in this area for quite a number of years and the opportunity came up and I'd like to do it."
Carey said he has 10 other locations he has North Star buildings for sale.
Those locations, however, are unmanned; he said he basically works from home for the most part.
"Business environments are changing all the time," Carey told the commission. "People want to do business by the phone or by the internet. I have these unmanned locations ... some of these lots sell 75 buildings a year and there's nobody there."
The lot in question is at 7714 U.S. Highway 51 on Minocqua's south side, owned by Lynn Trapp.
There's currently a small structure there that ultimately Carey, by the end of Tuesday's discussion, agreed to talk to the property's owner about establishing at least a small office.
As he continued to give background regarding his plans, he said he rents the property on a month-to-month basis and said he would use the existing pole in front for a sign advertising the company's name, his contact information and website.
Carey said one of the portable storage buildings would also serve as an information center, where prospective customers could pick up literature about the company's products.
"People can see samples of the roofing and the siding on display there," he said. "It works very well. I get a lot of response from my website."
The existing building had most recently been used as a dealership for auto and truck accessories but Carey told the commission he'd spoken to property owners Lynn and Wayne Trapp and there were no plans to continue that business.
As a result of Tuesday's discussion, Carey wouldn't have to be there all the time and in fact, could set his own hours.
But he would have to have a presence of some sort, other than simply having a few of the storage buildings there and never anyone around.
That compromise was reached at the end of a discussion where commission chairman Mark Hartzheim asked Oneida County zoning administrator Karl Jennrich how the county was looking at the possibility of an unmanned business there.
Jennrich said that was one of the reasons the plan commission was looking at it, as some of the research found showed a conditional use permit was approved to have outside storage and "they basically threw everything into that conditional use permit application."
He said that's when it was decided to go with the administrative review permit route "for their input."
"We are seeing throughout the county, and I see them in Vilas County, where you see these outdoor displays of boat docks and now, these types of buildings," Jennrich said. "I know the town is sensitive to 'Is this a business or is this just basically outdoor advertising?' So, actually, I'm just soliciting your input based on this type of business."
There's one other example of this type of unmanned business on Minocqua's south side.
"That's the only other one I got whipped for is that dock display," Jennrich said.
"But it is a sales facility," Carey said of his plans. "I am going to be selling buildings from that particular lot."
"Right, they sell the docks from there, too," commission member Brian Fricke said. "You have to contact them to sell the dock. It's an unmanned ... that's what's there, an off-premises display. That's the problem with it."
Commission chairman Mark Hartzheim said the plan commission and the town board are very "pro business."
"It's not that we don't want to see people being successful," he said. "It's more competing on the same playing field. There's other businesses selling portable storage buildings in town who also have made an investment. Purchasing a building, hiring employees, struggling to make a living year round, all kinds of overhead ... and is it fair to have somebody from the central part of the state put some buildings up for display and, you know, leave town and just deliver one when they sell one?"
Hartzheim said that "was the philosophical question, I guess."
"Nothing against you, personally," he said to Carey. "I bet you're an outstanding person and an excellent business person. It doesn't have anything to do with anything personally."
Fricke asked Carey if he bought the property.
"No, I rent it," Carey said. "I rent it month-to-month. The property's for sale."
"I know," Fricke said. "That's why I was asking if you bought it or were planning on buying it."
Carey then asked a question that actually led to the commission's eventual approval of his application.
"Would it be different if I rented the building with it?" he asked. "But still left it unmanned?"
That possibility was a little more favorable to the commission, although it was stressed to Carey at different points throughout the rest of the discussion he'd need to maintain some sort of presence physically.
Along those lines, commission member Phil Albert made a motion for approval to include the county's standard conditions as well as a set number of 16 hours a week the site would be staffed by Carey.
"That's two eight hour days," Albert said. "That's a number pulled out of the sky."
"How do we regulate that?" Fricke asked.
Commission member Joe Hegge suggested a different approach, that being a motion made to deny the application pending a staffing proposal from Carey.
"I like that idea," Fricke said.
"I don't even mind if it's one day a week," Hartzheim said. "I just think you have to have some presence up here to be able to say, 'This isn't strictly outdoor advertising from an out of town business.'"
He said for the commission and the town to be able to sell the idea to people "we're trying create some fairness for," Carey would need an office.
"Put a table in there," Hartzheim told Carey. "Just so there's some level of comparison where you have an office and a presence. If it's just seasonal, it's just seasonal. We understand. Probably the majority of businesses up here aren't doing much business all year round."
"Right," Carey said. "I understand."
Commission member Mark Pertile said he would be more comfortable if Carey rented the existing building also.
"Have it available for sales," he said. "I don't know that you ever meet anybody at any of your sites prior to selling."
"Occasionally," Carey said.
"You know, you meet them there, you at least have a small office to sit down in, review plans, there are bathroom facilities. It would be nice to assign the hours a week we would want someone there but I think that would be, first of all, hard to enforce and secondly, like you said, off-season times."
Pertile said a commitment from Carey to renting the building as long his displays were there "would satisfy my concerns at this point in time."
Carey said what he would probably do is rent an office in the building because the Trapps were looking to have someone else operate the building and have a business in it.
Albert's motion was defeated five to two - he and commission member Tom Church voted in favor - but was followed by another motion from Pertile which included a condition that 100 square feet of office space with restroom facilities available be leased by Carey while business and displays are conducted onsite.
He also added a condition to have company signage on the building's exterior.
"What about occupancy?" Carey asked. "I'd have to be there all the time?"
"The motion doesn't set your occupancy," Pertile said. "You set your own hours."
"I think we're just trying to make the distinction between a bona fide business and a display lot," commission member Bill Stengl said.
"I think that's what it's coming down to," Hartzheim said. "If it's tied to an existing business or office facility."
"I think there's model homes around the area that aren't staffed very often but you can sit down and do paperwork and ask questions or meet a customer there," Stengl said.
Pertile's motion passed 6-1, with Albert voting against.
Brian Jopek may be reached via email at email@example.com.