Home businesses targeted Baltimore Co. weighs changing law to focus on effect on neighbors

February 20, 1997|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Armed with only a computer, phone and fax machine, Patricia Garrity is an unlikely lawbreaker.

But by operating her computer and fax machine from her Timonium townhouse, the meeting planner is violating Baltimore County zoning laws.

And, most likely, so are the neighborhood Amway salesman, Avon lady and Tupperware vendor.

Now, to reflect the realities of work in the 1990s, Baltimore County is considering changing its zoning regulations. Rather than listing acceptable or unacceptable businesses, as surrounding localities do, the county wants to regulate them according to the impact on neighborhoods.

The Maryland Home-Based Business Association hopes the proposed legislation will become a model for the state, which has an estimated 40,000 home-based businesses. But some residents worry that the county is rushing to change its law without really considering the effect such businesses could have on their neighborhoods.

"This is a social economic issue that is extremely large," says Don Gerding, a Rodgers Forge resident who served on an advisory committee last fall to help prepare the proposed law.

As the planning board prepares for a public hearing on the legislation today, there is widespread agreement that the current law needs to be changed.

In Baltimore County, disputes have arisen over who should be allowed to operate a home-based business, how much space the business can occupy in a home and what kinds of equipment should be permitted.

Mike Britton ran a successful Amway business from his home for 10 years before county zoning officers closed him down for storing detergents, cleaning supplies and other Amway products at his home.

"I actually struggled like I was wounded for two years," said Britton, who today operates a lawn-care business and keeps his equipment away from his Mays Chapel home.

Allen Perlin and his wife, Lynn, potters who live in Timonium, ran afoul of the zoning laws after someone lodged an anonymous complaint when they advertised a pottery sale at their home. "For the first time we realized we can make anything we want, but we can't store it," he said.

They now keep their wares in friends' houses.

And although county officials have never cited anyone for having office equipment at home, the current law says the owner of a home-based business cannot have "mechanical equipment" unless it "may be used for domestic purposes" -- which wouldn't apply to computers and fax machines used mainly for business.

The proposed law would divide home-based occupations into three categories, according to their impact on surrounding neighborhoods. A business such as Garrity's with only one employee and few regular visitors would have the right to operate without permits in residential and rural conservation areas.

Home-based business owners who receive 10 to 25 visitors a week or store commodities at home would have to apply for annual permits. They also might have to take their request to a zoning commissioner if neighbors requested it.

A third class -- medical offices -- would be allowed by a special exception only if they fronted a major street and were in a residential neighborhood of single-family, detached homes.

Dr. Pat Lewis, an Owings Mills dentist, says the proposed law would make it more difficult for medical practitioners to work at home.

She has been trying to win a special permit to work out of her home on Winands Road since last fall. The zoning commissioner denied her request after neighbors complained her office would create too much traffic.

The proposed law's requirement that a medical office be on a main road would make it impossible for her to win a permit to practice at home, she said. "They would be making it more stringent."

Some community leaders want more time to study the proposal before the planning board votes.

Justin King, past president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations and a member of the advisory committee, said, "On its face, it appears to be a good bill the planning board can work with. But the communities don't feel they've had enough of a chance to review the legislation to give insightful testimony before the planning board."

Richard Parsons, a West Towson resident who also served on the advisory committee, points out that the proposal doesn't answer such questions as what would happen to existing home-based businesses that did not comply with the new law. Another complaint, he says, is that the formula used for calculating the space a home business may occupy is too vague.

Hillorie Morrison, the planner who has been in charge of crafting the legislation, says there is plenty of time to solicit opinions from community associations and make changes. "It's just the beginning of the process."

Although changes are likely before the County Council votes on the proposed law, the Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce supports its intent, says Stuart D. Kaplow, the group's legislative vice president.

The Maryland Home-Based Business Association also is backing the bill.

Don Grauel, a member of the association's board of directors, said, "Our goal wasn't so much to revolutionize zoning laws as evolutionize them. Our best hope has now been realized."

Today's hearing on the proposed law will be at 5: 30 p.m. in Room 106 of the County Office Building, 111 W. Chesapeake Ave., Towson.

Pub Date: 2/20/97

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