Monday, May 20, 2013

Work From Home (Guest Post)

Here is a guest post on an important subject before the County Council that relates to your ability to work from home.  I admit unfamiliarity with the subject, but thought I would share for your review and comment:

Every ten years or so, Howard County undergoes a process called “comprehensive rezoning”.  For most in the county, it is a process that garners few headlines or outrage.  Occasionally, there is the odd proposal that brings out activists but that is the exception rather than rule.  Yet comprehensive rezoning is hugely important.  The current plan is called Howard 2030 and it is a blueprint for how our community is going to grow and adjust to a rapidly changing world over the next generation.  Do we allow a large religious educational facility in the rural west? With growing demand for apartments do we cluster them in Columbia or spread them throughout the county? How do we ensure aging in place while maintaining opportunities for young families?  These are just some of the questions our Planning Board and County Council will be wrestling with.

Rezoning is essentially divided into two parts- what to do with different chunks of land and what to do with our current zoning code.  While we can argue about what happens to Woodmont Academy or apartments in Fulton until we’re blue in the face, I wanted to bring up something that really concerns in the proposed changes to the zoning code.

In Sections 128 and 131 the County has proposed a rash of new regulations on in-home businesses that are seem both overly onerous and willfully blind to how the economy has rapidly changed over the last few years.  To say that our economy is “rapidly changing” undersells just how transformative the previous five years has been and what the next decade will bring.  The financial crash untethered millions of workers from traditional 9-5 office jobs and advancements in technology has allowed everyone from lawyers to shop keepers to work from home.  Rather than building stable workforces, many businesses cycle through temporary and freelance employees. While that might seem patently unfair to older workers, it is a liberating adventure to recent college grads- enabling lifestyle choices and entrepreneurial innovation that was unimaginable to their parents.  Becoming a powerseller on Ebay offers the same financial benefits with greater security than opening a storefront in a village center; setting up shop in your kitchen is a great way to start a business at a time when the credit markets are closed to all but the best capitalized of the rich.

So what has our county proposed in response to these changes?  Well you can read it right here (Amendment Tab).  To begin with, who knew that current law mandates you get a permit from the County in order to work from home?  Rather than question the premise, the County has decided to create more regulations on top of that.  To whit, consider that you:

1) File a floor plan with the county making sure that your work space not exceed 33% of floor area or 800 sf.

2) If you can hire an employee, they can’t be in your house after 6pm, and if you have two people helping you that’s illegal- unless your home is on more than an acre.

3) Make sure that whatever you do, no one outside the home can see it, hear it, smell it, read about it, or see anyone park a car to get to it

4) Don’t sell anything from your property (I’m looking at you Ebay powerseller)

5) If you are like most Howard Countians and have an HOA, make sure you get their approval before you work from home.

Rather than unshackling creative enterprise the County is proposing to clap on the super kryptonite Legion of Doom ball and chain.  Rather than recognizing that being gridlocked between two of the worst commuting cities in America means we should encourage telecommuting and in-home businesses, some have decided that you’re better off contributing to traffic, smog, and putting your kids in before and after-school care.

I understand that there are in-home businesses that the County must regulate.  One of the horror stories, I’ve been told, is that there was a “holistic cleansing center” at a home that had well-and-septic.  But for every instance like that I can point to hundreds of business consultants, architects, day traders, lawyers, tutors, music teachers, accountants, and (yes) bloggers who add vibrancy to our community and money to our economy.  Rather than create more regulations on top of the existing one, the County should really think if ANY existing zoning regulation is appropriate.  If something violates the health, safety, or labor codes use those methods to reign it in, not the zoning law.  We should make Howard County a leader in unleashing the innovative spirit of citizens rather than the latest version of the scold.

I’ve been told that the Planning Board has sent a recommendation to the Council that much of these regulations be removed or revised.  I applaud them on that.  Now it is up to the Council, please make them hear you.