Mixing up the neighborhood

October 05, 1997|By Elise Armacost

I AM BREAKING the law as I write this.

I am pecking away on my home computer, and when I finish the copy will magically zip along the phone line to The Sun. I work like this a day or so a week; luckier folks are earning their livings without ever leaving home.

Leaps in technology have transformed the American workplace, making it possible for people to do business out of their living rooms. Tens of millions are doing so.

I thought this change was a positive one. It means fewer cars polluting the air and clogging the roads. Fewer children dragged to day care at the crack of dawn. Less harried parents. More people actually living in their own communities instead of merely sleeping there. In a small but important way, the civic fabric strengthens when you can wave from the window to the kids next door or chat with a neighbor at lunch.

So when Baltimore County decided earlier this year to bring its home-based business law into the modern age -- to legalize telecommuters and make it easier to work at home -- I expected few qualms. Instead, a citizens advisory panel reacted like this:

"We're dealing with commercial creep." "We need to conserve the residential flavor." "I wouldn't want to be living next to an accountant at tax time."

The revisions the committee recommended, many of which the county planning board will vote on this week, do make telecommuting legal. But in other ways they make the law more restrictive. Currently, for example, a dressmaker can hang out a shingle; that would no longer be permitted.

Originally, the county proposed that even "no impact" home businesses be permitted a small number of visitors a week so, say, a consultant could meet with a client. Some area counties deal with this by setting a number of permitted visits and requiring businesses to keep a record of them. The citizens said no.

The county suggested allowing people who sell Avon or Tupperware to store products in their houses, with a permit. Some counties allow this, as long as the goods are delivered by UPS or through the mail. The citizens said "No."

One change the citizens wanted but did not get was a prohibition on renters from conducting any home business, even typing on a home computer.

Home work

Now, this is a time when Americans have a low tolerance for people -- including those without the means to buy a house or a car -- who don't earn their way. Working at home could be an answer. Yet citizens wanted to eliminate that opportunity.

They feared someone might rent a home and instead of living there turn it into a full-fledged commercial enterprise -- even though both current and proposed law state that the owner of a home-based business has to live there.

These are not Baltimore County attitudes at work; they are suburban attitudes. You see this slavish devotion to residential segregation everywhere.

Since the end of World War II, a "neighborhood" has come to mean a group of houses where people are allowed to eat, sleep and grill burgers in the back yard. Suburban residents fear any other activity, thinking it will ruin "the character."

This has led to serious problems. Traffic, pollution, long commutes, children left with sitters for too long, ugly commercial strips and land-eating sprawl -- all stem from the insistence on living here and doing everything else somewhere else.

Ironically, suburbanites complain about many of these problems even as they refuse to abandon the formula that bred them.

Some counties, such as Baltimore and Anne Arundel, are encouraging more traditional, mixed-use communities. A summary of Baltimore County's proposed master plan, which will guide policy on everything from development to public safety over the next decade, is careful to note, "A successful neighborhood has a mixture of ingredients." While I talk to many who welcome this change, we appear to be outnumbered by folks like those citizens mentioned earlier.

No one is suggesting that suburban neighborhoods be thrown open to major commercial enterprise. They were not built for that. The thought of customers lined up at one neighbor's gift shop or huge delivery trucks backing up in another's driveway turns me off, too.

But will it really bother anyone if a woman who makes wedding cakes on the side puts a little sign next to her front door? In the long run, aren't we better off putting up with the accountant's busy April if his kids have someone to come home to all year? Would we even know if the Avon woman keeps cosmetics in her basement? Do we really believe that struggling writers shouldn't be able to ply their trade in a rented attic?

Our definition of a community should not be so small.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 10/05/97

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