Municipalities have the legal right to establish rules about what types of activities can be carried out in different geographical areas. For example, they often establish zones for stores and offices (commercial zones), factories (industrial zones) and houses (residential zones). In some residential areas -- especially in affluent communities -- local zoning ordinances absolutely prohibit all types of business. In the great majority of municipalities, however, residential zoning rules allow for small, nonpolluting home businesses, as long as any home containing a business is used primarily as a residence and the business activities don't negatively affect neighbors.
To find out whether residential zoning rules allow the home-based business you have in mind, get a copy of your local ordinance from your city or county clerk's office, the city attorney's office or your public library. As you read it, keep in mind that zoning ordinances are worded in many different ways to limit business activities in residential areas. Some are extremely vague, allowing "customary home-based occupations." Others allow homeowners to use their houses for a broad -- but, unfortunately, not very specific -- list of business purposes (for example, "professions and domestic occupations, crafts or services"). Still others contain a detailed list of approved occupations, such as "law, dentistry, medicine, music lessons, photography, cabinet making." If you read your ordinance and still aren't sure whether your business is OK, you may be tempted to ask for a meeting with zoning or planning officials. But until you first figure out what the exact rules of your locality are and have a chance to modify your plans to comply with them, it can be a mistake to call attention to your home business plans. One way to cope with this problem is to have a friend who lives nearby, but who doesn't plan to open a home-based business, make detailed inquiries.
In many cities and counties, if a planning or zoning board rejects your business, you can appeal -- often to the city council or county board of supervisors. While this can sometimes be an uphill battle, it is likely to be less so if you have the support of all affected neighbors. You may also be able to get an overly restrictive zoning ordinance amended by your municipality's governing body. For example, in some communities, people are working to amend ordinances that prohibit home-based businesses entirely or only allow "traditional home-based businesses" to permit those that rely on the use of computers and other high-tech equipment -- businesses that are usually unobtrusive, but far from traditional.
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