Few home-based businesses willing to risk permit process


For 10 years, George W. Brown operated an auto repair shop in Mount Airy that Howard County said was illegal. Now zoning officials are set to grant him permission to run the shop, but hundreds of other such home-based businesses in west county are making no moves to follow his lead.

Mr. Brown's fight began when he applied for a rezoning to legitimize his garage in 1993, the first request for rural business zoning, a category added by the county in 1992. His request tipped off neighbors -- who had no idea his business was hidden behind lush pine trees -- and they rallied against him. The county Zoning Board rejected his request.

Mr. Brown has finally come to terms with the county. Instead of a broader rezoning, he is poised to win an exception for a home-based contractor -- a classification that legalizes the business but carries greater restrictions. The Board of Appeals took a straw vote to grant the exception last Thursday, and is expected to sign a written decision in the next two weeks.

But not many other home-based business owners appear willing to risk their livelihoods and their neighbors' ire by applying for one of the three measures adopted by the county in 1992 to help legalize their operations: zoning changes, exceptions or permits. So far this year, only three homeowners have requested home-based contractor permits. In 1993, there were 14 requests. In 1994, there were eight.

But the business owners who have received such permits say the regulations have worked out well.

Ubbo van der Valk, a contractor in Highland, said he had tried to get a zoning exception for a landscaping business before 1992, but the rules required him to have 5 acres and he was a half-acre short of that. The 1992 rules allow contractors to operate on as few as 3 acres.

"The regulation is good for me in my case, and I assume that it would be good for all the ones that went and got a permit," said Mr. van der Valk, president of the Home Occupation Council of Howard County.

The council lobbied for the regulations, he said, to protect people operating businesses that were established before development exploded in the rural area. With development come homeowners who often don't like having businesses next door, and they complain to zoning inspectors who can force such businesses to shut down.

But homeowners rarely win their battles. Usually, businesses that are targets of complaints are given an opportunity to apply for a home-based contractor permit or, for more intensive uses like Mr. Brown's, a zoning exception for a home-based contractor, said William O'Brien, county zoning chief. "It's been pretty smooth. The contractors who do come in are somewhat pleased," Mr. O'Brien said. "I think there's a relief on many of their parts that there's a process that they can become legal by."

On the other hand, voluntary submission to the regulations isn't commonplace. "I think there's still probably a tendency for someone not to come forward and make a request unless there's an immediate need to," such as when a neighbor files a complaint or the property is put up for sale, he said.

One thing that may be keeping home-based business people from coming forward is the fear that their businesses will be severely restricted, Mr. O'Brien said.

But, he said, "in a lot of cases, its exactly what they've been doing for many years," such as not running heavy machinery so early or late as to disturb the neighbors, or keeping employee visits to a minimum.

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