The dispute between the Esseff family and their neighbors in Kalmia Farms, one of rural Howard County's more exclusive communities, appears at first glance to be nothing more than a classic zoning flap. The Esseffs run a business from home, and residents say it is disrupting the neighborhood.
But to Peter and Mary Esseff, who have been cited for violating regulations limiting the size of such businesses, the case raises a larger issue: Is the county ready for the information age, an era in which technology will enable more and more families to earn a living without leaving home?
"Working at home today is more practical, convenient and productive than ever," said the Esseffs' lawyer, Thomas E. Lloyd, who is fighting to change the zoning regulations that the couple is accused of violating. "It has been estimated that by the year 2000, home-based businesses will employ 25 percent of the American work force."
That may be true, countered Kalmia Farms resident Kay Gelletly, but the issue raises questions just as important for people who believe a home ought to be a place where one can enjoy a bit of peace.
"If every other home had a business in it, this would no longer a quiet neighborhood in which to raise a family," she said "Their argument is that society is changing and home-based offices are the wave of the future, but it will affect every community adversely."
The Esseffs have spent the past 20 years operating Educational Systems for the Future, a firm that writes training manuals for corporations such as General Motors, Exxon and the American Telephone & Telegraph Co., as well as for the state's community college system and the Maryland Police Training Commission.
Before they moved to their $1 million home in Kalmia Farms in 1989, the Esseffs assured the community association that their business wouldn't be a problem. Its only employee was a secretary and most of the traffic was family-related, Mr. Esseff said.
However, the Esseffs have since contracted with two more secretaries -- and that is where they ran into trouble.
When neighbors complained about traffic at their home, the Esseffs were cited for violating zoning regulations by having more than one outside employee and devoting more than 500 square feet of their 11,000-square-foot home to business.
"We feel we are being harassed," said Ms. Esseff, adding that only three or four cars come to their home home on any given day. "We never had any complaints when we lived in Columbia, and we lived there for 11 years on a quarter-acre lot."
The Esseffs think the county's regulations are shortsighted, and they are asking the Zoning Board to change them.
Citing futurist Alvin Toffler's predictions about the information age giving birth to a booming cottage industry, the Esseffs argue that the board made a mistake in overlooking the impact of technology on home
businesses when it adopted zoning maps and regulations in 1985.
The Esseffs propose allowing such business to have up to three outside employees and to take up to a quarter of a home's space. Any expansion beyond that would require approval of the Board of Appeals, which could set conditions on the use.
Home-based business evidently are flourishing. A 1990 survey by LINK Resources Corp., a New York consulting firm, shows that more than 34 million people are now working at home in full- and part-time jobs. About 11 million are self-employed, another 9 million are moonlighters, and more than 13 million are employees of companies who either work at home or bring work home.
Sarah Pick, who operates a public relations and marketing firm from her Columbia home and recently ran a workshop for home-based businesses for the local Chamber of Commerce, agrees with the Esseffs that regulations should be changed.
Ms. Pick estimated that about one-fourth of the home-based businesses she knows about have more than one employee, a violation of zoning regulations.
"There should be more flexibility in the zoning regulations," said Ms. Pick, who started her own firm after she was laid off from an advertising agency. "As soon as someone makes an issue about your business, then you have to worry about it."
But residents see the proposal to change zoning regulations as a threat to their quality of life.
Ms. Gelletly, whose home is one of four served by a driveway that cars and delivery vehicles use to get to the Esseffs' residence, said giving home businesses too much leeway will create traffic hassles for their neighbors.
We are concerned about the safety of children in the neighborhood because the drive is narrow and windy with no curbs," she said. "We are bothered by the delivery vehicles and employees going to and from the Esseffs' residence.
Ms. Gelletly and several neighbors took their concerns to the Howard County Citizens Association, seeking its support against the Esseffs' proposal to change zoning regulations.
They also have won the ear of Councilman Charles C. Feaga, R-5th, although Mr. Esseff says that there is no safety problem involved and that the neighbors are exaggerating the situation.
The Esseffs insist that working at home addresses a quality-of-life issue of another sort -- the limited time working parents get to spend with their families.
When the Esseffs decided in the late 1970s to run their business from the basement of their home in Columbia, they did it largely because they wanted to spend more time with their son and two daughters.
"Back then we had our office in Langley Park, and I had to take my two girls to a baby sitter, and I had a horrendous guilt in not getting home to them in time," Ms. Esseff said. "Now we have made the business a regular family thing."
The county has put off any action on the Esseffs' zoning violation, pending the outcome of their appeal of the citation and a ruling on their petition to the Zoning Board to amend regulations on home businesses.
The Planning Board will consider the proposed changes first and make a recommendation to the Zoning Board, composed of the five County Council members. The Planning Board hearing is set for March 5.