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Practical Suggestions for Home Business Zoning

work at home desk made possible by home business zoning

Home business zoning is often restrictive, but office-based activities can be permitted in every residential zoning district  if you set up strict performance standards or require review on a case-by-case basis. We think cities and counties should loosen their grip on home-based businesses in these days when almost all professionals are working at home at night, and when the primary tool for many businesses is the computer.

These zoning provisions may be simply holdovers from the days when a business in a residence was almost guaranteed to produce extra traffic and commotion in the neighborhood.

If blanket permitting of home-based businesses just doesn't work politically in your city, requiring conditional use permits or special use permits should address nearly every concern. The only reason not to allow working from home in single-family residential zones would be pure snobbery.

Many people can work for corporations from home, huge numbers of franchisees do most or all of their work at home, and computer-based jobs can be performed anywhere. So it's time for all municipalities to make working at home legal, providing the homeowner can meet some simple criteria.

The old land use category called home occupations just seems functionally obsolete to us; huge numbers of people are working a little or a lot at home.



Mechanism for Allowing Home Business Zoning

If you want to take the time to tailor your zoning ordinance correctly, you can permit home based businesses in all residential districts as of right. Your enforcement issue virtually disappears when you do this.

Changing your zoning ordinance in this manner can give some a publicity boost to your program for entrepreneurship support.

If your community wants more control over specific situations and unusual circumstances, you can require a special use permit. Even then, you should consider strongly the possibility that home business zoning is appropriate everywhere that people live.

A special use permit or conditional use permit requires specific governing body action on a particular application covering a particular home based use. In the conditional permit, the council or board can set up "conditions" that must be met for the use to be legal. So requiring these permits provides an extra layer of protection. The public hearings usually required also help discover any neighbor grudges that might lead to trouble later.


Standards for Home Business Zoning

Many of you already have great standards for home occupations in your zoning ordinances. Those that are truly necessary can and should be applied to all home businesses. Simply attach the standards that your city considers necessary as modifying language to the phrase home businesses when you list them as ordinary permitted uses in a residential district.

The end result is a paragraph-length set of modifiers after the phrase "home occupations," which is the traditional term found in zoning ordinances for what the general public now calls "home-based businesses."

Below we're giving you some specifics that we think may be necessary.

• No signs would be preferable. If you want to allow a small sign, think of the largest sign announcing "The Smiths" that you would like to see in a particular residential district. A business sign shouldn't be any larger than a family name sign.  Sign size maximums are usually shown in square feet. If people in your town don't mind such things, one square foot signs might be allowed. That's still a good-size sign, for example 6" X 24". For more discussion, see the sign regulation page.

• You should restrict home business zoning "as of right" (meaning no special or conditional use permit is required) to a business that has no non-family employees working regularly at the home.  We think you don't want to have neighbors calling for zoning enforcement when one employee stops by the house every three months or so.  Usually there is no reason to care how many employees a business has.  If the family has an employee that works in India or at their own home, why do you care?

On the other hand, sometimes ordinances allow one non-family employee, but it only takes one non-family employee and the three-vehicle household to make a parking problem in some neighborhoods. So non-family employees may not belong in all residential zoning districts, at least not without requiring a conditional use permit.

• You can limit the number of visitors for business purposes at any one time if you like. Four vehicles or two vehicles could be a maximum. Very few home businesses create problems of this sort, but having the limitation as a modifying clause in your permitted use listing gives you an enforcement option if you ever need it. 

Recently we heard of a creative twist on this type of restriction, in which allowing business visitors at the home would be considered legal under the zoning ordinance only if the visitor went inside the residence and stayed for at least half an hour.  The intent of this particular municipality was to create a zoning violation for drug dealers.  We haven't heard how this may be working out.

• Require that no business activity can occur outdoors. (Some traditional home occupations might involve  some outside activities, but you probably want those to be subject to conditional uses.)

• State that no special communications equipment not typical of residential areas should be allowed.

• If you don't have residential noise restrictions, impose some on the home business zoning. (Also think about adding that to your residential regulations in general.)

• If your town or city is weak on architectural controls, you also may provide that additions to a residence housing a home-based business always require a special or conditional use permit. This procedure guards against bad taste, such as the addition of a two-story garage with industrial-type roll-up garage doors, to a one-story house.

• State that no special communications equipment not typical of residential areas should be allowed.

• If you don't have residential noise restrictions, impose some on the home business zoning. (Also think about adding that to your residential regulations in general.)

• If your town or city is weak on architectural controls, you also may provide that additions to a residence housing a home-based business always require a special or conditional use permit. This procedure guards against bad taste, such as the addition of a two-story garage with industrial-type roll-up garage doors, to a one-story house.


The More Traditional Home Occupations

We're not suggesting that all of what traditionally were known as home occupations in zoning should be permitted uses. A moderate approach is to allow therapists, piano teachers, and the like, providing there is only one customer vehicle at a time. With households now having four vehicles each sometimes, in some cases it's irrelevant that one more car will be parked at a residence that may perhaps only own one car.

But when we start teaching six kids group gymnastics, that is another proposition, and one that probably should not be allowed.



It also would be  prudent to require all manufacturing activities to follow the conditional use process, so that you can deal with any potential for environmental hazards.

So for traditional home occupations in a long-established zoning ordinance, a few performance statements about the number of visitors at one time, noise, light, signs, and so forth will allow you to divide the list into "as of right" uses, some with newly added modifying clauses, and those that require conditional use permits in all circumstances.


A More Restrictive Approach to Home Occupations

If you aren't yet convinced that home business zoning is simply part of residential zoning today, you may provide that home-based businesses are permitted in certain zoning districts only if the business requires no equipment that is unusual in a residential setting.

Then the salespeople who use their computer, phone, sample books, and filing cabinets only can be permitted, and all sorts of possibly distasteful changes to typical residential use can be prohibited.

As a last resort if citizens are still concerned or if problems develop, your best option is requiring the conditional or special use permit to capture any unforeseen consequences for the neighborhood.


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