Complaint: Home business fish out of water - East Valley Tribune: News

Complaint: Home business fish out of water

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Posted: Tuesday, October 6, 2009 6:07 pm | Updated: 3:14 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

There's definitely something fishy going on in Agritopia.

Steven Powell works for his parents' Colorado-based Tropaquatics Inc., and his Gilbert garage is a way station for goldfish, guppies, mollies and other small fish. They're shipped to him - up to 20,000 at a time - from Denver, Los Angeles and other cities in plastic storage bags via UPS or Federal Express.

Powell's job is to repackage the fish with fresh water, so they can survive until they are delivered to local pet stores. If this takes more than a few days, fish are stored in one of the dozens of aquariums in the detached garage of the Powell home in the Agritopia community.

And that's where it becomes a scaly problem for Gilbert.

Town officials say Powell is in the warehousing business, which isn't permitted in residential areas. But he counters if the Board of Adjustment rules against him when it meets Wednesday, the decision could have far-reaching implications in a development where other home-based businesses are not just permitted - but encouraged.

"If they say we're warehousing, then they'll have to say the Mary Kay lady is warehousing stuff, too. There are several businesses of that type in this community," Powell said.

According to a town report, a complaint about odor and flies alerted Gilbert authorities to the business in June, a year after Powell had moved the tanks into the garage.

He'd moved them there after the lease on his Phoenix warehouse ran out and the economy took a dive, taking some of his clients with it. The plan has always been to move the fish out within two years, after he was able to determine where the market will go, Powell said.

Gilbert zoning administrator Mike Milillo at first thought Tropaquatics was breeding fish, making it an "animal raising" operation that is also not permitted by Agritopia's zoning. Once Powell made it clear he wasn't breeding or hatching fish, Milillo concluded it was a warehousing business instead.

"Most Mary Kay and other businesses like that can be confined to a bedroom or maybe a small part of a garage," Milillo said. "This guy moved 50 large fish tanks into his garage. It takes up the whole garage. It's a matter of scale. If he could keep it to a bedroom or something, we wouldn't have a problem with it."

Fish deliveries done by truck are also an issue, Milillo said, and the filled-up garage affects an already cramped parking situation in the neighborhood.

Powell said the UPS and FedEx trucks come to Agritopia anyway, and Tropaquatics' own delivery truck is only there for short periods of time. He said he and his wife usually park in front of their house, which is across the street from Gilbert Christian Schools.

Powell doesn't know who filed the original complaint, but he collected 56 signatures (six of them anonymous) on an online petition he began to gather support for his business.

Next-door neighbor Dior Tidwell said the Powells told her about their plans before they moved the fish in. She said she has never been able to smell the tanks or had any other problem with the fish being there.

"I'm going to be at the hearing on Wednesday night supporting them," she said.

Powell said when he moved to Agritopia with his wife and two children in May 2006, "the neighborhood wanted people who live here to form home-based businesses because of the impact on the environment."

The option of having a home-based business was one of the amenities that sold them on the house, but the fish storage business wasn't his first idea. Still, when Powell decided to cut his overhead by moving the tanks to the family home, he thought, "Great, we can do this," he said.

He has 10 employees who mostly work out of their own homes, including salespeople and an accountant. Through his downsizing, "I was able to retain a lot of them because I was able to reduce my expenses," he said.

It's true Agritopia was encouraging home-based businesses, but Tropaquatics is not the kind the community had in mind, Milillo said.

"The type of home-based business they were expecting would be a computer-type business working from home, or growing vegetables and fruits from the home and selling them," he said.

The Gilbert Planning Commission, which also serves as the town's Board of Adjustment, meets at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the Town Council chambers at Gilbert Municipal Center, 50 E. Civic Center Drive. If the board rules against him, Powell will need to speed up his relocation timeline - he'll have 10 days to move the tanks out.

Any appeal of the board decision would go to the Maricopa County Superior Court.

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