In the digital age, starting a business is easier than ever. Not only is information more readily available, but technology allows many to work completely from home. However, if you are considering starting a business, you must be sure your business will comply with federal, state, and local laws. Zoning ordinances are an important, and often an underappreciated, legal requirement that may affect your home business.

Zoning laws designate land for a particular use or uses. Local government rules sometimes permit home businesses in residential zones and sometimes do not. As a result, any entrepreneur considering a home business must take care to ensure compliance with zoning ordinances.

What zoning laws do?

Zoning laws in the United States date back to the early 1900’s. The United States Supreme Court first approved of zoning laws in the 1926 case of Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty, and, although courts have at times placed limits on various zoning practices, most modern zoning practices have upheld by courts.

Local governments use zoning laws to shape development by exercising control over what people can do with their property. Local governments often regulate agricultural, commercial, industrial, and residential uses. Each use may be broken down further into specific uses within the applicable classification. For example, an area zoned for residential use may specify that only single-dwelling or multi-dwelling areas are permitted, and may further differentiate between types of multi-dwelling structures. Some zones allow multiple uses. However, many people reside in districts zoned solely for residential use.

Home-based businesses and zoning laws

According to the Small Business Administration (SBA), the purpose of zoning laws is to enhance living conditions. Just imagine how different your life would be if your neighbor decided to use their land for a carnival ground.

Residential zones are designed to minimize the effects that commercial and other non-residential properties have on residential neighborhoods. Home-based businesses can affect residents’ use and enjoyment of their neighborhood. As a result, municipalities often restrict home based businesses in zoning ordinances. According to a study conducted by the SBA, restrictions on home-based business are generally meant to accomplish one or more of the following goals:

  1. Maintaining the residential character and outward appearance of neighborhood homes;
  2. Restricting traffic flow and parking;
  3. Preventing nuisances and hazards for neighbors; and
  4. Prohibiting certain kinds of businesses-retail, motor vehicle repair services, etc.

Local laws

The foregoing categories provide useful general guidelines for home businesses. However, you should remember that most zoning laws fall under local jurisdiction and can vary from place to place. In order to avoid zoning compliance issues, you must be aware of the ordinances of the political subdivision with zoning authority over your property. Most municipalities, townships, and counties, have made all of their ordnances, typically including zoning maps, available online.

Lastly, even if a zoning ordinance affects your business, you may be able to obtain a conditional use permit allowing you to operate your home business even though it would not normally be permitted within your zoning district. Typically, these permits are approved by the local governing authority on a case-by-case basis.

Finding the answers

You need to consider numerous factors to determine whether local zoning ordinances will affect your home business, including the zoning district your home is located in and the nature of your business. To find out about the specific restrictions that may apply to your home business, you should start by reviewing local zoning laws and any available zoning maps. Once you have completed your initial review, you should consult with an attorney about any questions you may have. An experienced attorney will help you identify potential zoning issues, and assist you in obtaining any necessary permits, licenses, and/or variances that may be required.