Two years ago, Baltimore County officials, worried that the county would be left behind in the era of telecommuting, decided to overhaul the antiquated home-based business regulations, with an eye toward the 21st century.
After scores of meetings, public hearings and seemingly endless debate, the bill that the County Council will vote on this summer is only 17 lines long, and would simply legalize computers, fax machines and home-office equipment in such businesses.
But while it dodges some of the most controversial issues surrounding home businesses -- including deliveries, client visits and merchandise storage -- the bill is seen as a reasonable compromise by community and business leaders who spent years working on it.
"We agreed on what we could agree upon," said Robert L. McKinney, president of the Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce, who helped work out the compromise that led to the bill.
Said Don Gerding, a member of the Community Conservation Action Group, who also worked on the legislation: "This is what we wanted to begin with."
The measure scheduled for a vote in August would keep the current zoning law governing home businesses virtually intact.
That means a home may be used for a business as long as there is only a small sign, no commodities are stored there, no more than one outside person is employed and no mechanical equipment is used except that which is otherwise used for "domestic purposes."
The bill also includes an amendment that makes it clear that computers, printers, fax machines, modems, copy machines and similar office equipment would be allowed, and that the limit on employees would apply to each dwelling, not to each business.
Still, the bill does not satisfy the complaints of artisans, salespeople and others who had sought a change in the law to allow them to store merchandise at home.
"It's time for the county to come up to the 20th-century standard," said Michael Britton, a Mays Chapel resident who had to reduce his Amway sales after a neighbor complained about delivery trucks. He called the bill before the council "absolutely a sop."
Nor does the bill completely satisfy residents who opposed allowing home businesses to have outside employees.
"Nothing is perfect in an imperfect world," said Richard Parsons, a Towson resident who had worked for years on the legislation and helped broker the compromise.
While the number of county residents who work at home is not known, an estimated 40,000 home-based businesses exist in Maryland. Some of the county's largest employers, such as AAI Corp., encourage telecommuting even though those policies conflict with the county's zoning regulations.
In May 1996, the County Council passed a resolution asking the county planning board to review the 40-year-old law in light of the increasing number of home-based businesses.
Community groups, business leaders and planners spent hours debating how many clients could visit a business, how many deliveries a business could receive, how much space a business could occupy and how to enforce the regulations.
By the time the planning board made its recommendation in February, the suggestions had grown to eight pages.
But at a hearing on the proposal in April, some community leaders approached business leaders, seeking to work out their differences. Weeks later, three businessmen and three community leaders sat down and, within 2 1/2 hours, crafted a compromise that formed the basis of the council bill.
"We are very pleased with the bill," Parsons said. "It preserves the existing law and still addresses the basic needs of the business community."
Councilman Douglas B. Riley, a Towson Republican who helped sponsor the original resolution asking for a review of the law, also supports the bill, while acknowledging its limits. "It's a microscopic step forward," he said.
The minimal legislation disappoints some who worked so long on the home occupations bill, however.
Cecelia Merkel, who works from home and served on a citizen committee to revise the law, said she believes the county eventually will have to address some of the unresolved issues. But she added, "I think it is better than not doing anything at all."
Pub Date: 6/21/98