The county Zoning Board members took extra steps to accommodate home-based businesses last week, voting to relax space, employee and delivery restrictions in county zoning regulations.
The new regulations will bring hundreds of current violators into compliance, said Joseph Rutter, county director of planning and zoning.
"It recognizes what's out there," Rutter said of new regulations governing home-based contractors, one of two new sections being added to the county's zoning regulations. "Right now, I've got them backed into a corner -- they either fight it or they hold us off as long as possible."
The new regulations will either allow a business to continue with restrictions to prevent disturbing neighbors or allow business owners to petition the Board of Appeals for a special exception for a more intensive use, Rutter said.
In work sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday, sections on home-based contractors -- which include businesses with commercial vehicles -- and home occupations will be added.
The County Council, sitting as the Zoning Board, will meet again at 9 a.m. July 21 to discuss new rural zoning districts and individual changes to the zoning map for the rural western half of the county.
Current regulations contain only a short definition of "home occupation," which is allowed in all residential zoning districts, and nothing on home-based contractors.
The current definition allows 25 percent or up to 500 square feet of a home's floor area to be used for a home business.
In a 4-1 vote, the County Council, sitting as the Zoning Board, agreed to raise that limit to 33 percent, with an 800-square-foot cap. The increase was recommended in public hearings by the county Chamber of Commerce.
The board also voted to increase the number of permitted non-resident employees from one to two, and struck down a proposed limit of one delivery per week to home businesses.
"It gives me more possibilities in terms of expansion and growth within the regulations," said Lisa Berlin, president of Taking Care of Business Inc., a home-based financial management business in Oakland Mills village.
Berlin said she has one part-time employee who sometimes works in her home. According to a strict reading of the current definition of home occupations, that could be a violation.
The definition now allows only one non-resident employee "in connection with the practice of a profession," which could mean a doctor, lawyer or other occupation requiring an advanced degree, said Jenifer Huff, who helped write the new regulations for the county Planning and Zoning Department.
"It's very open to interpretation," said Huff, who said the aim of the new regulations was to give more specific guidance.
Board member Shane Pendergrass said she agreed with the department's recommendations and was uncomfortable with the board's decision to increase space limits on home businesses.
While it may not be a problem with larger properties, she said, home businesses could cause parking and other problems in communities with quarter-acre lots, town houses or condominiums.
"When you have people closer together, you have to be extra careful to be considerate of your neighbors," Pendergrass said.
The department's zoning inspectors get hundreds of complaints annually about home-based businesses, although few turn out to be actual violations, said David Calloway, zoning enforcement supervisor. He said there are about a dozen cases pending against violators.
He said the new regulations will be more challenging to enforce, because rather than just prohibiting certain businesses, it sets specific limits on them.
For example, the new regulation on home contractors will allow non-resident employees to visit the lot, but only to pick up and return vehicles and equipment.