From the March 2001 issue of Startups

The purpose of zoning laws is, essentially, to provide a happy medium between the rights of an entrepreneur and those of local residents-to allow free enterprise and community peace to co-exist. Although zoning laws vary depending on your locale, Angela M. Cerino, Esq., an assistant professor of business law at Villanova University's College of Commerce & Finance in Villanova, Pennsylvania, says there are some general rules to remember as you set up or grow your homebased business.

Cerino suggests first contacting your local government to find out how your property is zoned, whether it's residential or commercial. Then try to determine how the government regards your particular business; a professional business with visiting clients may have different restrictions than a business that specializes in warehousing or storage.

"Zoning laws are there to protect the residential environment," says Cerino. "They're designed to ensure that development and growth take place in a rational way that's compatible with the desires of residents in a community." As such, business owners should take into account what additional noise, traffic or pollution their business is going to bring into the community. You can expect zoning laws to be stricter with companies that bring in more of these factors, whereas they may have very little effect on a Web-based company that uses the home much like a normal resident would.

Entrepreneurs should also be aware of grandfathering, which protects you from being penalized for something that predates the ordinance. "If you are using a property in a way that has since become illegal under your local zoning ordinance, you may continue to use that property in that way, but you may not expand your use," explains Cerino. "In other words, you may continue to use your existing office, but you can't build an addition to your office."

That is, unless you apply for a variance, which allows your business to be exempt from a specific zoning regulation as long as you can prove that it would be an undue burden on you as a property owner to not be able to use your property in a given way. For example, let's say your office predated the zoning code and you're covered under grandfathering, but your business is growing and now you need to expand. So you apply for a variance because you've had a practice there for 30 years and now you want to bring your sons and daughters into it as a natural extension of your growth.

To really get a grip on zoning regulations in your area, visit your local zoning board and make sure you haven't overlooked any rules and regulations. Hire an attorney if necessary. You'll thank yourself later when you're able to operate your homebased business in peace.