A Zoning Nightmare On Elm Street

Home business? The neighbors may raise hell

Zoning regulations were the furthest thing from her mind when Georgia Patrick decided to move her media-consulting business from Washington, D.C., into a barn on her 29-acre parcel in western Maryland. Her husband had been running his land-conservation business, Windstar Wildlife Institute, out of the same barn for years without any problems, and her firm, the Communicators, had only one assistant working on-site. The rest of her employees were already telecommuters. The nearest residence was so far away, she says, "you'd need field glasses" to see it. She didn't expect any complaints.

Yet neighbors did complain, saying they just didn't want a business in the neighborhood--and invoked an ordinance from the 1950s that prohibits a nonfarm enterprise from operating in an agricultural zone. Patrick eventually won the battle, but it consumed about two years of her life and cost her nearly $300,000 in legal fees and lost business.

Whether you are just establishing your home business or have been operating trouble-free from your spare room for years, you should know the zoning restrictions that apply to you. Most towns have laws on the books limiting the scope of home businesses, but they are rarely enforced until the neighbors start demanding action. "Once the neighborhood ignition system is lit, you are really in trouble," warns Paul Edwards, co-author of Working From Home (Tarcher/Putnam Publishing, $15.95).

To find out where you stand, visit town hall and check the zoning map. Some municipalities don't have zoning regulations at all, and others have updated their laws. But many have ordinances on the books to prevent businesses such as auto-repair shops or beauty salons from eroding the residential quality of neighborhoods. The codes vary widely, but they generally prohibit home businesses from generating traffic, posting signs, using on-street parking, hiring more than one employee, or using too high a percentage of floor space.

Also check other restrictions that might apply to where you live. Planned communities and condominium boards, for example, have rules that are frequently more restrictive than local zoning. They may even prohibit home businesses altogether, says Cora Jordan, author of Neighbor Law (NOLO Press, $14.95). Some subdivisions establish special covenants.

"The best defense is good neighbor relations before you start," says Edwards. Before you launch your business, tell neighbors about your plans so that they'll have an idea of what to expect, and you can resolve concerns early. Explain how having someone home during the day will improve security for everyone. Offering to meet neighbors' repair people or fill in for a late babysitter, for example, can really boost relations, says Rhonda Abrams, a consultant to small businesses and founder of the Idea Cafe, a new site on the World Wide Web for entrepreneurs (http:// www.up.ideacafe.com). "If you make yourself useful to your neighbors, you are going to have an ally," she says.

If your neighbors find your business intrusive, there may be ways you can minimize its impact. Most complaints are triggered by traffic, noise, and lack of parking. If you get a lot of deliveries, consider using a mail-receiving service such as Mail Boxes Etc., says Edwards. If necessary, you could share commercial office space with other people who work predominantly from home and hold meetings or receive mail there, suggests Jordan.

"TWILIGHT ZONE." Once your neighbors complain and the local bureaucracy kicks in, your job gets tougher. If the town gets an injunction against your use of the home for a business, you have to comply or face contempt of court. Meantime, you can try to have the zoning laws changed. Local authorities may be amenable, particularly if the code seems outdated. Having neighbors' support will be essential to your cause. You also may be able to get a variance if you can show your business does no harm to the neighborhood and that relocation would deprive you of your livelihood, says Edwards.

Ideally, you should research these matters before you begin working from home. If you are relocating, along with checking zoning, make sure your next-door neighbor isn't the kind of local crank who constantly brings complaints to town officials.

The fact is, most towns' zoning codes are in conflict with home-based entrepreneurship and can create a "twilight zone" for the unwary. With care, though, you can control the outcome.

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