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Zoning and Private Lane Use Restrictions

If your dream is to commute 10 feet down the hall to your home office, one of your first steps should be to make sure you understand your local zoning regulations. Since your town, city or county’s role is to maintain the residential qualities of its neighborhoods, you may find unexpected rules and restrictions for your home business. And, if your residence is governed by a homeowners’ association or you are a renter, there may be other limitations on how you can conduct your business.

What can be regulated?

You may encounter rules that govern whether you can hire employees to work with you from your home, or they may limit the number of employees that you are allowed. Similarly, some cities limit the amount of space in a home that can be used for your business.

Environmental factors may be addressed in your regulations. The obvious ones—managing waste disposal, chemicals or other hazardous materials—could be addressed in local ordinances. A business that emits fumes or odors may be not allowed in your residential area. On a broader scale, rules are designed to keep all the neighbors happy. Parking or the types of commercial vehicles allowed on your street might be restricted.

Tip: To find out about the ordinances in your locality, you can check the library for zoning rules, or you can inquire at your local zoning department.

Can my homeowners’ association restrict my use of my home for business purposes?

Besides town, county or state regulations, your home may be governed by a homeowners’, condo or co-op association, or a lease agreement with your landlord may include additional restrictions.

Be sure to check your homeowners’ association or lease documents to see if you can operate a business from your home. There might be specific limitations; for example, a condo association might allow a home-operated business as long as it does not involve a constant flow of patients or clients coming and going through the building.

What will happen if I am already running a home-based business, and I find out that it is illegal?

In the worst case, you will be forced to move your home-based business, or even close it down, if you are found to be violating local zoning laws or private regulations.

On the other hand, you might be able to make changes which satisfy the concerns of your local government or neighbors. For instance, if your business means a steady stream of deliveries is an annoyance to neighbors, you might use a nearby mailbox drop service.

What if I do not think the local home-based business rules in my community are fair?

Home-based business rules and regulations are based on maintaining a quality of life within your neighborhood, and they are often overlooked if neighbors do not complain. It is even possible that nearby families can see a positive, safety aspect to your presence in the area during the day.

This is an area where compromise and negotiation may be great tools in reaching your goal. After all, you live there too, and it may help if neighbors understand you have a personal interest in the quality of life there.

At the local level, you could apply for a zoning variance or even to effect a change in ordinances. The number of home-based businesses is growing each year, and local governments will feel a pressure to respond to the trend.

How do I proceed if I want to get a zoning variance or even a change in the local ordinances?

You can deal with a zoning problem in three stages.

  • First, negotiate with the staff of your town or city’s zoning department. You might agree, for instance, to always park a truck used for your business in the garage, rather than leaving it on the street.
  • Second, request a zoning variance from the city. Basically, you are asking for an exception to the ordinance, and you will want to be prepared with some solid reasons why the variance should be granted. If you have been operating from home for the prior 5 years without complaint from neighbors, this is the kind of point that will help you accomplish your goal.
  • Finally, you can get involved politically and try to change the regulations. If you are on the border of a commercial area, you could ask that the commercial area be extended to include your business. Or you could go even further and ask that the entire area be rezoned.