Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Is Inventor's Lab Subject to Zoning Laws?

Dear Rich: I am an inventor who has received two patents and am waiting for a third. My inventions are all electrical and I do my inventing in a separate structure I built on my property. The structure was built to code and I got all the needed permits. Recently, there was an accident in my work area and a small fire occurred. The fire department came but I had already put the fire out with an extinguisher. However, a neighbor wasn't happy when she learned that I use the structure, which is near her home, for electrical experiments and she's claiming that the structure is not zoned for business use. Things are hard enough for independent inventors. Can you suggest any ways to get around this problem? You would be subject to local zoning laws (especially if inventing is a business for you, not a hobby.)
Get in the zone.  The purpose of zoning rules is to help maintain the peace and quiet of residential neighborhoods. To find out where your community falls on the issue, read your local zoning ordinance. You can obtain a copy from your city or county clerk’s office or your public library. Zoning ordinances are worded in many different ways to limit businesses in residential areas. Some are extremely vague, allowing “customary home-based occupations.” Others allow homeowners to use their houses for a broad but, unfortunately, not very specific list of business purposes -- for example, “professions and domestic occupations, crafts and services.” Still others contain a detailed list of approved occupations, such as “law, dentistry, medicine, music lessons, photography, cabinetmaking.” Whether inventing falls within one of these categories is usually unclear -- meaning it may be difficult or impossible to know for sure whether your local zoning ordinance bars home inventing businesses. Most ordinances prohibit activities that cause excessive noise, pollution, waste, odors and similar conditions not appropriate in a residential neighborhood. The important factor in zoning disputes is usually not the rules themselves, but maintaining peace with your neighbors so that the rules don't become an issue.
Public nuisance and other law. Keep in mind that even if your community doesn’t have restrictive zoning laws concerning home businesses, it could take legal action against you if you make a nuisance of yourself -- that is, do something that may harm public health or safety; for example, creating excessive noise or offensive odors, or storing hazardous chemicals or waste ... or starting fires. In addition, your invention business may be limited if (1) there are restrictions in a lease (if you're renting), or (2) there are restrictions in your community's CC&R's (if you live in a gated community).