Municipalities' laws starting to catch on with growing trend
After years of working in business, Rhonda Schuldt decided it was time to come home.
With the aid of a laptop computer and cellular phone, Schuldt started The Synergos Group, a small-business consulting company, last year in a spare room in her Cranberry Township home.
For Schuldt, it was a chance to use skills she gained in the business world on her own terms.
"I have the ability to do the kinds of things to satisfy me and challenge me. That's what I enjoy the most," Schuldt said. "And the fact that I'm (working) out of my home, it's comfortable."
Schuldt's story typifies the evolution of the home-based business. The stereotype of the stay-at-home mother selling crafts out of the home has been replaced by professionals opting to bring their businesses to their homes.
Technology has helped bring about the change.
"Technology has certainly widened the range of businesses that are successfully operated from home," said Cliff Shannon, director of the SMC Small Business Council. "Obviously, a DSL line and equipment that can be bought at CompUSA or through the mail from Gateway are much more powerful business tools than anything we could have envisioned a decade or so ago, and in many instances, such tools can be employed from one's den just as well as from an office Downtown."
A 1998 Department of Labor study estimated that 6 percent of all households in the country, or 6.1 million homes, have a home-based business. And from travel agencies to technology consultants, planning officials in communities across the region say today's home-based businesses run the gamut.
In Bethel Park, Bob Martin operates North Shore Technologies, an information technology consulting company, out of a study.
In Monroeville, Tammy Albert is the woman behind Ad Specialties Inc., a advertising promotions sales company run out a first-floor home office.
For Albert, it was a chance to use her years of experience in advertising promotions in a more comfortable environment.
"I don't have to get onto the parkway every day. I can wake up at 8:15 a.m. and be in the office by 8:30 a.m. I don't have to travel in the snow, and I don't spend nearly as much money on clothes," she said with a laugh.
While home businesses have evolved, many of the ordinances regulating them have not. Municipalities vary on what they do and do not allow in terms of home businesses, but a bill recently passed by the state House could change the way home businesses are viewed statewide.
The bill, sponsored by state Rep. William Adolph, a Delaware County Republican, amends the state's municipal planning code by making "no-impact," home-based businesses a permitted use in all residential zones, meaning a business would not need an approval from the local government to operate.
A no-impact, home-based business is just that, a business that has no impact on the surrounding neighborhood — no changes to the exterior of the home, no deliveries outside of what is normal in the neighborhood and no customer traffic, Adolph said.
Shannon, whose organization has endorsed the measure, said the idea behind it is simple.
"If you can carry off a business with, for all intents and purposes, no impact on the neighbors, then there is a potential worth," he said. "If there's no impact whatsoever, you're generating taxes for the community, consuming no local services. … It can be positive for the neighborhood."
For communities that consider home-based businesses a special exception or conditional use under existing codes, however, it could change the way they regulate home businesses.
If passed, the law could have an impact on communities such as Ross Township, which considers a home-based business a conditional use, and Shaler Township, which requires a hearing with the zoning board before the business is approved.
While Bob Vita, Shaler's code enforcement officer, said there probably are a number of home businesses operating without the township's knowledge, complying with the regulations gives neighbors a chance to express their opinions about the businesses.
But often, the business must draw attention before neighbors have something to say.
"Either people are for it or against it, but it gives people a chance to speak," he said.
Vita said the board recently heard from the neighbors of a man who operated a painting business out of his home. The neighbors were concerned because the painter had several vans parked outside of his home throughout the day.
"That wasn't sitting well with the neighborhood, so he was made aware of these requirements," he said. "It's one way to keep the residential integrity while still supporting home businesses."
Adolph's bill passed unanimously in the House on Feb. 13 and is now being examined by the state Senate's local government committee.
"Small business are really the backbone of our economy," Adolph said. "And they have to start somewhere."