By Mark Bliss
Special to Business Today
Homes and businesses don't mix. That's often the message from the Cape Girardeau City Council and the planning and zoning commission.
The zoning commission and the city council in recent years have routinely denied special-use permits for city residents who want to start businesses in their homes, citing a desire to protect the residential quality of neighborhoods.
It's an issue faced by home-based businesses nationwide, according to the Home Based Business Council, an organization with headquarters in New Jersey.
The New Jersey group and other supporters of home-based businesses contend that city zoning laws across the country often are antiquated rules that fail to take into account today's computer and communications technology and the growing number of people who work from their homes.
The Cape Girardeau Chamber of Commerce has entered the debate. The chamber in June established a committee to look at how to encourage home-based businesses while at the same time protecting residential neighborhoods.
Chamber president John Mehner serves on the six-member committee, which includes two members of the city's planning and zoning commission.
Mehner said the group's top priority is to preserve the residential quality of neighborhoods. "Right behind that, we need to make this as easy as possible for entrepreneurs and others in the work force to operate businesses out of their homes," he said.
Mehner said home-based businesses are a growing trend. It's estimated that about 20 percent of the nation's labor force will be working out of the home by the year 2020, he said.
The committee, Mehner said, plans to look at possible guidelines that would make sure that a house looks like a house and not a business, restrict the amount of customer traffic and noise that could be generated by home-based businesses and require that such operations have city business licenses.
Mehner said the committee hopes to complete its work within the next several months. Any proposed changes, however, would require city council approval.
Basement photo studio
Meanwhile, city residents like Candi Winkler remain frustrated in their efforts to start home-based businesses.
Winkler earlier this year requested a special-use permit to operate a graphic design/photography studio in her home at 2573 Lisa Drive. First, the planning and zoning commission and then the city council turned her down, insisting they were doing so to protect the residential neighborhood.
She paid $10 for a business license before learning that she would need a special-use permit. She requested the permit and paid the $50 application fee. "I wanted to be legal and do it the right way," Winkler said.
Now she feels as if she paid all that money for nothing. Mayor Jay Knudtson said the money she paid for a business license will be refunded. The special-use permit fee isn't refundable.
Winkler doesn't understand the city's opposition to her business. There wasn't any neighborhood opposition, she said.
She didn't plan to install a business sign on the front of her home. Customers were to come to her house by appointment only.
She said there would be little traffic.
Her studio is confined to a basement room. "You would never know there is a business down there," she said.
"I haven't advertised," Winkler said. "I am pretty well doing this as a hobby." Winkler said she can't afford to rent commercial space in Cape Girardeau to turn her hobby into a real business.
The city council's refusal in many cases to allow home-based businesses only encourages some city residents to avoid seeking city business licenses. The end result, Winkler said, is that people are operating home-based businesses. They're just not telling City Hall.
Winkler said the planning and zoning commission, which advises the city council, and the council itself need guidelines that will allow for but regulate home-based businesses.
Sarah Guebert shares Winkler's frustration.
Sarah and Perry Guebert, both retired from the Navy, moved to Cape Girardeau last September. Sarah said her husband wanted to turn his woodworking hobby into a part-time business.
They applied for a special-use permit after receiving a letter from the city notifying them that they were running a business out of their basement and needed the permit to be in compliance with city regulations.
Several neighbors opposed the request even though Sarah Guebert said the woodworking business is "not real noisy." Both the zoning commission and the council denied the Gueberts' request for a permit.
She maintains that the city has no clear guidelines. Day-care centers, for example, have been allowed to open in residential neighborhoods, she said.
The Gueberts are planning to leave Cape Girardeau because of their experience. "We have our house on the market. We are ready to go find something in the country where we don't have to deal with the city," she said.
The city's reluctance to approve home-based businesses forces many city residents to ignore city regulations while working from their homes, Guebert said. "It doesn't encourage people to get a business license." City officials admit they have no idea how many home businesses are operating in the city or even how many have business licenses.
Buz Sutherland, director of the Small Business Development Center at Southeast Missouri State University, said regulations that are clearly spelled out would help both the city and entrepreneurs.
"We all know there are a lot of businesses being run out of homes that aren't licensed, and frankly the city is losing revenue it could be generating from modest permits and fees," Sutherland said.
A smaller gray area
But even more detailed guidelines won't replace the need to consider home-based businesses on a case-by-case basis, he said.
"You will still have those that are kind of in a gray area," said Sutherland. "What we hope to do is make that gray area a lot smaller than it may be right now." But Mayor Jay Knudtson said the city is more concerned with protecting the residential quality of neighborhoods than with boosting the number of home-based businesses in the city.
"I will err on the side of protecting residential neighborhoods," he said.
However, Knudtson said that the council is willing to listen to any suggestions for improving the permit process. "I would like to think there is some common and middle ground that can be reached," he said.
Skip Smallwood, chairman of the planning and zoning commission, said his board takes into account the opinions of neighbors in considering requests for special-use permits for home-based businesses.
The commission typically opposes requests that would lead to additional traffic and noise in neighborhoods, he said.
Smallwood said applicants would do well to seek out the support of their neighbors before applying for a special-use permit. Neighborhood support or opposition weighs heavily with zoning commissioners, he said.
"I am amazed that people apply and never talk to their neighbors," he said.
"We do want to be business friendly," Smallwood said, "but we have to have a balance on everything."
Mark Bliss is a staff writer at the Southeast Missourian.