According to recent statistics, every 12 seconds a home-based business is started in the U.S. At last count, there were about 38 million such businesses across the country. I can vouch that our Hudson Valley region is a healthy contributor to this tally, given the kinds of new business zoning issues that people frequently bring to my office. Whether they’re creating a home-based job out of necessity because of long-term unemployment, or fulfilling a life-long entrepreneurial dream, there’s no doubt that we live in an area of creative self-starters.
Which is not to say that there aren’t persnickety local zoning laws that can restrict some kinds of home-based money making. Digital desk jobs are generally not an issue, but other more visible types of initiatives may require a special town permit to operate legally. Take the example of a local resident who wanted to convert a large barn into a storage facility for RV’s and campers. It seemed like an ideal way to repurpose a great old barn and make some extra money. Nonetheless, there was still a lot of debate about whether such an operation fit in with its residential neighborhood and what kind of precedent would be set if this business was approved for a special permit. Things like traffic potential, noise factors, and the size and hours of operation had to be clearly defined. And neighbors had to be given the opportunity to present any concerns. In the end, a special permit was not granted because of zoning law would not allow it, however, after several additional hurdles, the zoning law was amended to allow the barn-based operation. Clearly, this wasn’t the slam-dunk approval process that one might expect.
Some of our town zoning laws were written to anticipate certain kinds of home-based self-employment. Historically, our area has been well populated with many individual service providers—landscapers, electricians, plumbers, carpenters, etc—so local zoning regs generally allow for the activity these trade persons conduct from their homes. But when it comes to other less traditional service providers—especially women with small business initiatives—our loosely drafted zoning rules make permitting more complicated.
Take the case of a young single mother in our county who wants to operate a small home-based beauty salon and spa during the hours when her kids are in school. Even though her neighbors fully support the plan, residential zoning laws in her neighborhood generally require she apply for a special permit based on the size of her proposed operation. Things like the number of customers served daily, parking spaces needed, road traffic, and signage will be an issue, not to mention the fact that she will need a building permit to convert part of her garage to a salon. In some neighborhoods, such a home-business plan could be immediately nixed; in her case, she may eventually get a special permit, but it’ll take much due process with the local zoning board and very specific restrictions.
In another local case, certain neighbors complained about the existence of a child day care facility. The neighbors alleged that this business operation never received a special permit from the town and should not be located in a residentially zoned area. The day care owner was informed by the town that she’d have to go through a public hearing process and site plan review by the planning board in order to get a special permit. Aside from the risk of not being granted a permit, the financial resources as well as the time that she would have to expend could have put her day care out of business. This would have a devastating effect on several working families with young children in her care.
For philosophical reasons, New York state policy protects certain types of businesses—like childcare and farming—from what can be unreasonable or outdated local zoning laws. After a legal memo and some discussions based on New York statutes, the town rescinded its demand that she apply for a special permit.
There’s no doubt that as the 21st century economy continues to shake up traditional job opportunities, the issues around zoning home-based businesses will continue to engage our local officials and neighborhoods. Solutions are not often easy, but ideally, they’re always fair.
Mitchell Khosrova is an attorney specializing in contracts and negotiations.