Local Businesses Say They Hit the Wall in Permitting Process

Permitting processes and a lack of infrastructure make problems for small businesses on the KP.


Last January, Tedra and Kyle Hett, owners of Two Fox Winery in Home, applied for a food permit. The winery opened in 2022, and they wanted to offer cheese and crackers to the people who came to enjoy a glass of their wine.

They expected a straightforward process. What they experienced was a frustrating series of interactions with the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.

Part of the problem, Tedra said, is how the department is structured. The application must address water, water waste, and food handling. Each of those areas is dealt with in separate areas of the department, and they are siloed. “We either got different answers from people or we didn’t get answers — it was vague and unclear, hard to get anything in writing or an actual direction,” Tedra said.

The lack of water and sewer infrastructure compounded the situation. They were told that if they served 25 people or more in any one day, they must upgrade to a Group A well. Group A wells are permitted by the state and are required if more than 25 people are on the property more than 60 days a year. “We can speak to our volume,” Hett said. “There are days when we have three people and days when we have 30. The health department doesn’t take into consideration what your business model is and your usage. It feels very discriminatory for a small business in a rural unincorporated area that can barely get other services.”

“Converting a well to a Group A system can take up to a year,” Lydia Bower, engineering manager for Northwest Water Systems, told the KP News. The company, based in Port Orchard, specializes in small water systems all over the state. Conversion requires ensuring the current well is suitable, then designing an engineering plan and submitting it to the state. Those plans might be approved or have constraints, Bower said. The cost is likely in the tens of thousands of dollars, even if the well needs no additional work.

The Hetts were also told they would need two refrigerators. “I asked them if we could have a policy to throw food out if the refrigerator broke down,” Tedra said. It was not an option. And she was concerned that at some point, the department might require a new septic system.

“It’s so frustrating,” she said. “With all the requirements, it forces you to decide to go big or go home. Everyone tells us we are so lucky, living our dream. It’s kind of a nightmare trying to do this.”

Sarah Anderson, owner of Madrona Café, had opened three cafes before coming to the Key Peninsula. “I found the health department really helpful when I was proactive,” she said. “But Pierce County was the most difficult I have ever dealt with. In Portland, it was easier, they were very upfront with what was needed, you were given a checklist. They do the same thing here, but the list is five pages long and the requirements are incredible.”

She said that she had the advantage of knowing what questions to ask because she had done this before, and she also found an advocate within the department who was quick to answer her inquiries.

When Anderson purchased the property, she did not know that the septic system had been decommissioned. She had to install an underground tank that is pumped out. She uses disposable cups and containers to minimize water use. The café opened in January 2020.

Elli and Blake Lechner opened Serve Nutrition in Key Center last November, months later than they had hoped. Like Anderson, they had previous experience with two sites in Arizona.

“Working with any health agency is always challenging,” Elli said. “It has been some time since I last navigated, but this was frustrating. This is probably the only kind of business serving food that could exist here. Very little is washed down the drain. Everything goes into the cup, and there is no waste. Nothing is baked.”

They hired a septic designer recommended by the county who came to the site, discussed the business model, and reviewed records of water use from a business with the same model. The health department didn’t accept his report, required them to resubmit with a higher volume, and charged an extra fee.

“All this without coming to visit,” Elli said. “It was a good thing that my husband and I had other jobs,” Elli said. They both continue to work outside Serve but are thrilled by the community response.

Two Fox opened its doors in May after closing for the winter. They withdrew their food permit application. They will offer shelf-stable snacks — crackers and popcorn — and will no longer wash glassware. But they will provide customers with a Two Waters glass they can take home and bring back.