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VOL. 35 | NO. 19 | Friday, May 13, 2011

Home-based dilemma

As many as 13,000 home businesses might be violating Metro law. That could soon change.

By Colleen Creamer

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Gabe Sizemore is breaking the law. So, potentially, are 13,000 of his neighbors. Every time a client, musician or engineer visits Sizemore’s small Hermitage recording studio, he is violating a Metro ordinance written before the widespread use of home computers and e-commerce.

“Big recording studios went belly up when Pro Tools [a small digital audio workstation platform easily used in homes] came on the scene, that and digital downloads” Sizemore explains.

“I can name eight engineers who are seeing clients in their house and who’d be horrified if they knew they were producing music illegally in Music City. Why go to a big production studio when you can go to a producer’s house and walk away with a disc the same day for half the price. Who has that kind of money to spend?”

Any recording engineer, seamstress, accountant or photographer who meets with clients at home is doing so illegally – probably unknowingly, says Metro Councilman Mike Jameson, who has proposed a bill that would allow residents who operate home businesses to meet with eight clients each day.

The bill, he says, would update codes to meet with today’s technological trends and the economy’s demand for home businesses, while legally protecting those already in operation.

“These are individuals simply trying to make a living in their own homes,” Jameson explains. “For many still suffering in a difficult economy, they have no choice but to use their only resource – their homes – to get back to work. The last thing we need to do is tell them that they’re not only unemployed, but they’re breaking the law.”

The bill would allow 25 percent of a residence to be used commercially but “shall not alter the existing residential character of the principle dwelling or the accessory building.”

In addition, the “direct sales of commodities, goods, wares, materials, merchandise or products to the general public is prohibited.”

It also limits the storage of materials or goods within the space designated for home occupation activities. Even with those limits, however, and a maximum of eight patrons per day, the proposal has some obvious detractors. At a recent public hearing the opposition lined up to speak about issues of parking and traffic.

“Parking has certainly been included as a concern, but the bill limits home businesses to regular business hours,” Jameson says. “In other words, home businesses will only see clients when the majority of their neighbors are at work. And the bill further limits clients to two per hour.”

This does not convince East Nashville resident Iris Clune, one of Jameson’s constituents, who worries that, parking and foot traffic issues aside, a larger problem would be losing the sense of “neighborhood.”

“My understanding is that the ban on patrons was set up to be able to shut down prostitution without a complicated sting operation,” Clune says. “Primary businesses should be in areas zoned for business where it’s easily regulated. In my neighborhood, we look out for each other. With a stream of a variety of people, how are we going to do that?”

Jameson counters by citing Knoxville, Chattanooga, Memphis and other cities nationwide as effectively adopting similar changes. He says he is still “painstakingly” researching other city codes.

“So far, every city I can find, and every city to which we have ever compared ourselves, allows home businesses to see clients,” Jameson adds. “Based upon research conducted to date, it appears that Nashville is one of the only cities in the entire United States that prohibits home-based business from seeing clients or patrons.”

Jameson says he’s also received an overwhelming number of emails from those in the music industry who operate home recording studios. The current policy, he adds, was drafted in 90s before the age of home computers or telecommuting, identifying specifically recording engineers and producers, a staple of Nashville’s home-run businesses.

“I had the unpleasant task of telling them that the current Metro code prohibits the operation of home recording studios for all practical purposes,” Jameson says. “I guess, technically, you could set up equipment in your home, you just couldn’t allow anyone to come over and be recorded, which, if I understand correctly, is the point. It’s just not in keeping with the modern world, and I suspect it’s not in keeping with what most people would expect today.”

Another potentially controversial provision of the bill allows patrons to post signage – non-illuminated and not to exceed six square feet and five feet in height – to be attached to the primary residence.

“The bill continues to undergo revision based upon community meetings,” Jameson says. “One of the earliest changes was to eliminate allowances for signage. At some of the earlier community meetings, neighbors indicated that they could support home businesses, but not with signage.”

Despite the large number of home businesses in existence, Jameson adds, Metro Codes has received “few, if any” complaints from neighbors.

Jameson also noted the disparity between those working at home and those who have pulled home-occupation permits. 2010 U.S. Census Bureau figures show that roughly 13,000 Nashville residents claim to have a home business, while only 203 home-occupation permits that have been issued in Davidson County.

“The reality is that these cottage industries are well accepted in their neighborhoods, and we just need the law to reflect that,” Jameson says.

The bill was approved by the Metro Planning Commission on April 28 and is headed for second reading.

“I deferred it to allow us to incorporate additional changes suggested at community meetings and by the Commission,” said Jameson. “The next community meeting is scheduled for May 24th and the bill comes back before Council for second reading in June. I certainly don’t think I’ve drafted the perfect bill, so I’m still seeking as much input as possible.”

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