Changes to home-biz laws proposed in two Hilltowns

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Kristine Zimmer uses a long-arm quilting machine to sew a quilt at her home business near Warners Lake in Knox. She has been operating her quilting business, Quilt for Ewe, out of her home for the last 15 years since she retired from working as a teacher. The business is a fun, post-retirement activity for her, and she does not plan on expanding it even if the town law is changed.

HILLTOWNS — Although there are fewer commercial businesses than formerly in the Hilltowns, it is hoped that proposed amendments may lead to more home businesses in Berne and Knox.

In Berne, the town board has introduced a bill that would amend the definition of home businesses, also known as “home occupancy,” and what is allowed. A public hearing on the law will be held just before the regularly-scheduled town board meeting on Wednesday, June 12, at 6:45 p.m.

The Knox Town Board will also be holding a public hearing on its proposed amendment to the town’s home-business law at its next meeting on Tuesday, June 11, at 7 p.m.


In Berne, the proposed law would update the definition of a home occupation and also remove the definition of a “low-impact” home occupation and replace it with a new term: “minor” home occupation.

The Berne bill distinguishes between what is a “major” and “minor” home occupation based on whether customers are allowed to enter and the number of employees working there. A major home occupation is allowed to have customers on the premises and up to four on-site employees. A minor home occupation is allowed up to two on-site employees but cannot have any customers on the premises.

While the current Berne law similarly distinguishes a major home occupation from a low-impact one by whether customers are allowed on the premises, the on-site employees are limited to two in either category.

Under the proposed Berne law, the maximum size for an outdoor sign would increase from four square feet in area to either six or 12 square feet depending on the district the business is in. Businesses located in accessory buildings may use the entirety of the building, whereas before they were limited to 500 square feet.

The changes to the law were discussed by Berne’s town board at its regular April meeting, addressing issues like signs, employees, and parking.

Councilwoman Dawn Jordan told The Enterprise that she can recall when changes were first proposed by the town’s planning board in 2013 — when she was a member of the planning board herself. She said that it went before the town board but didn’t go any further then, and it was reintroduced in town board discussions earlier this year.

“I kind of brought it back out again,” she said.

Jordan hopes that the changes will make the process of approving a home business less confusing for applicants and for the town, and also that it will encourage more home businesses in Berne by easing some of the restrictions currently in place.

Jordan noted that the definition of “home occupation” refers to when homeowners own and operate their businesses out of their homes; it does not apply to employees of a company working from home.


In Knox, the proposed amendment would increase the number of employees allowed on the premises from one to two in addition to the owner, and also allow for accessory structures to be used. The amendment also clarifies that there should be no visible storage of materials or equipment outside the building, rather than no storage at all, specified in the current law.

The current definition of a home business “really hobbles” business owners in town, said Tom Wolfe, the town’s planning board chairman. Wolfe told The Enterprise that the amendment promotes a better atmosphere for business owners.

Wolfe also said that the proposed amendment marks the end of a year-long discussion by the planning board of home occupation, and that it was supported unanimously by the planning board.

“The ball is in the town board’s court,” he said.

The issue of businesses comes up often in Knox, with a proposed multi-use recreational district still awaiting a vote by the town board after a similarly proposed business district was voted down twice by the board. The town currently has just one business district, in the hamlet of Knox; a plaza there has a café and a dog-grooming business.

This past December, Wolfe also asked the zoning board of appeals to weigh in on an interpretation of the town’s zoning law: whether the restrictions of a particular zoning district apply to a home business.

In January, the zoning board voted unanimously that home businesses are independent of their zoning district’s particular regulations. Wolfe told The Enterprise on Monday that the vote “just settled the issue” that was being debated by the planning board.

Home rule

Jordan said that in Berne the town attorney noted home businesses still are under the restrictions of the zoning district in which they are located, based on a general principle that — unless it is specified otherwise — one part of the zoning law will not supersede the other.

“Knox’s zoning could be totally different than ours,” she said.

According to a New York State Department of State official, local governments have home-rule authority that “permits many variations to be employed by each local government.”

“The appropriateness of each approach cannot be judged in a vacuum or by the Department of State,” the official wrote in an email, though a judgement could be made if someone filed in court.

Jordan said that the Berne board is developing a new schedule of uses for home businesses that would permit certain home businesses to operate in districts where they otherwise would not be allowed due to zoning. In two residential districts, for example, hair salons or barber shops are not allowed, but a home business-based salon could be allowed if the scheduled uses were revised, said Jordan.

Jordan said that she thinks that home businesses could be garnering more attention due to more people in the Hilltowns wanting to work from home and the advent of internet sales.

“It opens up a whole group of businesses that wouldn’t have existed 20 years ago,” she said.

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