Although the "z word" makes people's eyes roll back in their sockets, the basic idea is simple: What type of business is allowed where? Zoning regions are labeled industrial, residential, commercial or farming/agriculture.
The more your business alters the character of a residential area, the greater the possibility for problems. Will you need extra parking or signs? Will employees or customers come and go during the day? Will you be open at night?
Lisa Martin of Fairfax County, Virginia, found out about nosy neighbors the hard way. Martin's creative marketing firm, LeapFrog Solutions, started out quietly in her four-bedroom colonial home. Her marketing campaigns and trade show plans went well until a neighbor, observing the in-and-out parade of her two employees and occasional visitors, called the "zoning police." Martin was forced to move the company to commercial space.
Visit your local zoning office to obtain a copy of the area map, which shows what your area is zoned for. If you need something outside the ordinance, you can apply for what's called a "variance" or "special use" permit. This isn't a change of zoning but an exception to enforcing limits on the books. Before a variance is given, there will be a public hearing before your board of zoning appeal. The board considers the impact of the change on the rest of the neighborhood; whether others have gotten this approval in the past; and whether current regulations pose an undue hardship on doing business in that area.
As the work force spawns more entrepreneurs and telecommuters, ordinances prohibiting homebased businesses are slowly changing. "Quiet" homebased industries-especially information-based businesses-have the greatest chance of approval. Retail or manufacturing businesses have a tougher go of it in residential neighborhoods.
Fortunately, few municipalities have the bodies to go around checking for zoning violations, but if you are caught violating a zoning ordinance, enforcement can range from nothing to a fine to an order to move elsewhere.
One final tip: If you live in a rental apartment, condo, townhouse or any "high density" housing, check your lease or deed for restrictions on homebased businesses.
e-CityHall.com: Submit zoning questions, or look up information on inspections, variances and ordinance enforcement at this "virtual city hall."
CCH Business Owner's Toolkit: This site features sections on zoning information and the consequences of zoning violations.
Introduction to Zoning by David W. Owens