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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 8, 2010

As more people work from home, local towns consider zoning changes
Streamlining permits raises GOP concerns

By Anne Hayden

GUILDERLAND — A proposal to quell conflict and to streamline permits for people who work at home has already caused discord on the town boad.

Home businesses have been a subject of controversy in the past — in July 2008, Councilman Mark Grimm was cited for not applying for a special-use permit for his home business, Mark Grimm Communications. In November of that year, he suggested changing the rules for home-occupation permits, stating that the law was “not hospitable” for business owners.

Other residents and business owners have complained, over the years, that the permit process is too complicated. People seeking home occupation permits are required to appear before both the planning and zoning boards, and to submit a site plan for review.

Because of those and other complaints, the town board voted in the fall to establish a zoning review committee, which was charged with going over the zoning code and recommending changes. At the top of the list for the committee, chaired by Kenneth Brownell, was revamping the home-occupation permit process.

The goal, according to Brownell, was to streamline the process. The committee recommended breaking home occupations into three categories — Minor Home Occupation, Home Occupation I, and Home Occupation II.

A Minor Home Occupation is described as one where the location is primarily a residence and the business is conducted wholly within the dwelling unit; there is no change to the exterior of the house and there are no signs; there are no non-resident employees; no clients or customers visit the property; no products or repair services are offered on the property; there is no creation of excess noise, vibration, glare, fumes, odors, or electrical interference; and, there is no use or storage of toxic or hazardous material. The applicant need only submit a completed form for permitted home occupation.

Home Occupation I would require a special-use permit to allow one non-resident employee, and two clients or customers in the dwelling at any one time. Home Occupation II would require a special-use permit to allow up to three non-resident employees, the use of accessory structures, the exterior display of products of the home occupations, and the sale of products assembled on the lot; Home Occupation II would only be allowed in rurally zoned areas.

The purpose of designating some home occupations as “minor” is to eliminate the current requirements for some business owners to appear before two boards. Under the proposed law, only those businesses that need special use permits would need to appear.

Peter Barber, a member of the review committee and the chair of the town’s planning board, said the process for obtaining a Minor Home Occupation permit could be as simple as filing paperwork, and would allow for “self-policing.”

GOP objective

“This would allow individuals to decide whether or not they want to be recognized as an official business,” Barber said.

But Grimm, and his fellow Republican councilman, Warren Redlich, had some objections to the proposed law revision.

Redlich said a home business meeting all the criteria for a Minor Home Occupation should not require a permit at all, and that the conditions are so restrictive if taken literally, the law, as it is written, would require anyone who does any work at all in his or her home to get a permit.

“A lot of people do at least some work at home. If you take it literally, if you sell one item from your home, you need a permit,” Redlich said. He said he thought the law should make registration optional, rather than required. Members of the zoning review committee said that’s exactly what the re-drafted law would do.

“It allows for self-certification. There are no consequences if a minor home occupation decides not to get a permit, unless it is operating outside of the criteria,” Barber said.

He said the law would help to eliminate “neighbor-versus-neighbor” conflicts. If someone called the town to report that a neighbor was conducting business from home, Rodger Stone, the town’s zoning enforcement officer, could easily check to see if there were a Minor Home Occupation permit on file. Then Stone would not have to conduct an investigation.

“It would actually make things much easier for me,” said Stone. Under the current law, since every home occupation requires a special-use permit, if a complaint comes in, Stone says he has to conduct a drive-by investigation, check the phone book and Internet for advertisements, send out a letter, and meet with the person in question.

“We try to be as thorough as we can. If the revised local law were adopted, it would save a lot of time for me, and alleviate neighborhood conflicts,” said Stone.

But Grimm said he thinks the proposed law muddles the issue even more.

“This would actually create more neighbor conflict. Now they know they can turn you in. The decision to obtain a permit should not be left up to the resident; it should be based on whether neighbors are bothered,” said Grimm. He said, if the neighbors are not disturbed, there is no need for a permit.

“This is unwarranted government intrusion. I object to the government’s reach into the home. It is none of the town’s business,” Grimm said. He said business owners who work from home need assistance from the government, not more red tape.

“This law is not sensitive to the idea that home business are the 21st Century. They need assistance, so they can help grow the economy,” said Grimm.

He estimates that there are 1,600 home businesses in the town of Guilderland, based on information from the United States Census Bureau and the United States Small Business Administration. Barber said the planning board fielded requests for home occupation special-use permits once every few months.

Redlich made a motion to eliminate the paragraph in the draft of the local law, under Minor Home Occupation criteria, that states, “An applicant must submit a completed application for a permitted home occupation permit which certifies compliance with the provisions of this section and pays any fee required by the town board.”

Grimm seconded the motion, but Democratic Supervisor Kenneth Runion, and Democratic councilpersons Patricia Slavick and Paul Pastore, voted it down.

“This would be a drastic improvement to the law,” said Runion. He said he thought the law was liberal compared to home occupation laws in other counties.

“I don’t know what their problem is, except for arguing for argument’s sake,” said Runion, in reference to Grimm and Redlich. The supervisor said he did not think the proposal was “perfect,” but that he was willing to compromise his views because the bi-partisan review committee had reached a consensus on it after months of hard work.

In the end, the members of the town board voted unanimously to set a public hearing for the proposal, for May 4, at 7:30 p.m.

“People who run home businesses in town really need to speak up,” said Redlich.

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