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New Scotland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 8, 2010

As more people work from home, local towns consider zoning changes
Should home businesses move out of the house?

By Saranac Hale Spencer

NEW SCOTLAND — Barns left vacant as farming has waned here could have a renaissance.

Robert Mitchell, an architect, plans to use a 19th-Century barn behind his Helderberg home as an office by renovating one section of it.  He first broached the idea about a year ago, but found that New Scotland’s zoning laws wouldn’t allow for it.

Currently, residents can have an office in their home, with up to two employees, but they cannot have an office in a structure that is not attached to the house, like a barn or carriage house.

Like other municipalities that allow for accessory structures to house businesses, New Scotland should accommodate residents who want to work on their property, Mitchell said.  “Nationally, that’s the trend,” he said this week of people increasingly working from their homes.

Also, he said, people want to preserve their barns, but their upkeep is expensive.  “Barns need to be able to generate income for the owner in order to justify the many tens of thousands of dollars necessary to stabilize and maintain them,” he stated this week.

Since few area barns are still used for agriculture, he said, people should be able to use them for different means to generate income.

Taking stock of the barns in town, Mitchell found that those in decline outnumber the sound by two to one.  “It doesn’t take long,” he said, for barns to deteriorate if they aren’t taken care of.

In an effort to move the town towards amending its zoning law to allow for home businesses to be located in accessory structures, Mitchell hired Nan Stolzenberg, a planner who has worked on several local municipal land-use plans, to help draft a revision.

“It’s very common,” she said this week of municipalities allowing businesses to function in buildings not connected to homes.  In many communities, the practice was never restricted, while in others, she said, municipal boards have seen an increase in the number of people wanting to locate businesses near their homes and want to encourage it.

In his time on the planning board and then the town board, Councilman Douglas LaGrange said this week, he has seen an ever-greater need to allow for people to run businesses near their homes.  “Bob Mitchell’s situation was the last one,” he said.

Usually, Stolzenberg said, there is very little controversy around it.  “Many communities have a limit on the number of employees” that are allowed to work in the business, she said.

The draft law that the town will discuss at its next meeting includes a limit of two non-family-member employees allowed to work in an office located in a home and a limit of four non-family-member employees allowed to work in an office located in an accessory structure, providing that the applicant can prove that the project will generate no great influx of traffic.

Allowing for two to four employees is typical, Stolzenberg said.  “It depends on the community,” she said, explaining that five cars parked at a home in the densely populated suburb of Delmar would be quite different than five cars parked at a home with 100 acres and no nearby neighbors.

Since New Scotland has always allowed home occupations, Stolzenberg said, “you’re not reinventing the wheel.”  It is a matter of revising one section of the town’s zoning code, she said, adding, “This was written for relatively low impacting home occupations.”

Councilman Richard Reilly expressed concern last month about the potential impact that allowing four employees could have.

This week, LaGrange stressed that the number of non-family-member employees allowed to work in the structure would be up to the planning board’s discretion.

Robert Stapf, who sits on the planning board, and Roselyn Robinson, whom Stapf supported in her failed bid for a town board seat in last November’s election, shared Reilly’s concern, although they both expressed support for the intent of the bill.

Cynthia Elliott, who sits on the planning board, also praised the intent of the bill, but cautioned the town board that laws governing accessory structures for businesses and for mother-in-law apartments should be kept separate.

That issue was made prominent earlier this year when James Lynch’s grown son, Daniel, moved into an apartment his father made on the second floor of a storage structure so that he could take care of his father during cancer treatments.  The Lynches were notified that they were violating the town’s zoning law, since it doesn’t allow for two dwellings to be on the same parcel.

“We should try to accommodate these things, without imposing on the neighbors,” Supervisor Thomas Dolin said of accessory apartments when the issue came up in January.  He estimated at the time that the town would revisit its zoning code to make amendments in the spring.

Last month, the Lynches were granted a temporary-use permit, which will allow them to use the apartment for a year.

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